Bladimir Sánchez Espitia, a community journalist and documentary filmmaker based in the southwestern department of Huila, has had to flee the region after releasing a video on 20 February showing a brutal police crackdown on residents in the municipality of Gigante, who were protesting against a threat to the environment from a proposed hydro-electric complex.
The police moved against the protesters on 14 and 15 February. Violence was used against journalists during a similar police operation in the neighbouring department of Meta yesterday.
Sánchez told Reporters Without Borders he fled the region “temporarily” today after being accused of “acting against the security forces” and of being “paid by the guerrillas” – a reference to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which have traditionally had a presence in the area.
Notorious for its political instability, its high murder rate and the frequency with which local officials are removed from their posts, the Gigante area also has a large paramilitary presence, the origin of reprisals against all those who try to cover sensitive stories such as the current environmental dispute.
“The HydroAysén affair in Chile, the mining dispute in Panama and the recent mass eviction of residents from the poor neighbourhood of Pinheirinho, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, all served to highlight the dangers that journalists and other observers run while trying to monitor this kind of event,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“The risk is obviously all the greater in a Colombian war zone where some foreign corporations had no qualms about employing paramilitary terror to help get their way, as the Chiquita Brands scandal revealed in 2007.
Reporters Without Borders added: “Sánchez must be given adequate protection so that he can return to Huila. When a journalist is forced into exile, it is always a setback for freedom of information and, in this case, a setback for coverage of a subject of major public interest as well.”
Since 2008, Sánchez has concentrated on following local communities in the Gigante area in their disputes with oil and power companies. The video that prompted these threats was about an attempt by Emgesa, a subsidiary of the Spanish and Chilean-owned multinational Endesa, to locate the hydro-electric complex “El Quimbo” in the area.
Ranked 143rd out of 179 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Colombia continues to be one the western hemisphere’s most dangerous countries for journalists.
Read the report on environmental journalism.