Santos wants to improve Colombia’s press freedom ranking

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for more protection for journalists and more efforts to combat impunity when it met Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos last week, while President Santos regretted that Colombia was ranked no better than 129th in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

The meeting between President Santos and RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire at the presidential palace in Bogotá on 31 August was marked by hope – a hope sustained by the recent peace accords with the FARC rebels ending half a century of civil war.

Deloire stressed the importance for Colombia of providing better protection for its journalists, who for decades have been the victims of rebel groups, drug traffickers, paramilitaries and sometimes government officials and politicians.

According to RSF’s tally, 58 journalists were murdered in Colombia from 2000 to 2015 in a clear or probable connection with their work, making Colombia one of the western hemisphere’s deadliest countries for media personnel. Around 90% of these murders went unpunished.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that no journalist has been murdered in Colombia since the start of 2016. The security situation is now satisfactory in the capital, Bogotá, but journalists continue to be exposed to terrible threats in many parts of the country, threats that prevent them from working properly.

One of the most emblematic cases of impunity in Colombia is that of Nelson Carvajal Carvajal, a Radio Sur journalist killed in April 1998 while investigating corruption. After 17 years of foot-dragging and irregularities, the Colombian judicial system has yet to identify and punish those responsible. The case was referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica, in 2015. Colombian government representatives testified to the court about the case in hearings held on 22 and 23 August. In a 28 August letter, the Bogotá-based Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), an RSF partner organization, accused them of blaming the Carvajal family for the failure to convict anyone of his murder and of minimizing violence against the media and impunity.

“While President Santos now embodies peace, partly because of his Nobel peace prize, we think he should also embody freedom of the press,” Deloire said. “He seemed disturbed by the fact that Colombia is as low as 129th in the World Press Freedom Index. We believe that, in his final year as president, he should carry out major reforms that help combat impunity for murders of journalists and make the Unit for the Protection of Journalists more effective in the most difficult regions, so that Colombia can become a model for media freedom in Latin America.

President Santos indicated his sympathy with the causes defended by RSF. He was a columnist and then deputy director of El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading daily newspaper, which was owned by his family. He also headed the Inter-American Press Association’s committee on freedom of the press.

Asked by RSF about combatting media ownership concentration, he expressed a neoliberal view. “The less regulation, the more freedom of the press,” he said. He also mentioned the “considerable” efforts made by Colombia to be a world leader in open data. Colombia is 4th in the OECD’s 2017 open data ranking (OURdata Index).

The RSF delegation also met interior minister Guillermo Rivera, who is responsible for implementing the “Public Policy on Freedom of Expression”, an ambitious accord that was the result of two years of consultation with national and local media and with civil society groups. Unveiled in May 2016, it includes judicial guarantees for journalists, guarantees of protection and guarantees of access to information. But nothing has so far been done to implement it. Rivera undertook to implement by the end of President Santos’s term in May 2018.

The peace accords include other media freedom provisions such as more openness to news gathering in regions affected by the conflict. However, in RSF’s view, community and public interest media need guarantees that they will be able to compete freely and guarantees (funding etc) that they will be viable in the long term. A 2014 access to information law has helped to break down a culture of secrecy and to make state-held information more transparent. But problems persist with regard to defence and security.

Colombia rose five places in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index but is still in the bottom third (129th out of 180 countries).

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Updated on 06.09.2017