Journalists Face Death Threats And Self-Censorship in Colombia


"Just call me pro-Yankee" read the title of the column Gerardo Bedoya wrote shortly before his death. In it, he said he preferred United States interference to cocaine corruption in Colombia's government.

On March 20, a motorcycle-riding assassin shot down the editor of the El Pais daily in Cali as he walked to his car.

"A journalist in Colombia is always watching over her shoulder," says Mary Isabel Rueda, director of QAP TV news.

Colombia is the riskiest place to practice journalism in the Western Hemisphere, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Forty-two journalists here have been killed in the last decade, 10 percent of the world total. And while the press is free of overt censorship, journalists say they face a practice as restrictive. "Self-censorship" comes either from pressure from conglomerates that own most media or threats from drug cartels, leftist guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries.

Further restricting the press, President Ernesto Samper Pisano - angered by the media's coverage of his government's many scandals - has pushed a law through Congress to control television news. The new law requires that news programming be judged by the government for its "objectivity" every six months. If deemed unobjective, the licenses could be taken away.

"It's blackmail. The law is full of arbitrary reasons to license or not license any station," says Ms. Rueda, whose QAP news is seen as a special target because of its heavy coverage of the allegations that the president received campaign money from Cali drug lords.

"It's hard to find investors when you could be shut down every six months," she says. QAP and other news organizations say they hope Colombia's constitutional court will overturn the law. A decision is likely by this summer.

"If you want to keep your show, you'd better self-censor," says Luis Gabriel Cano, editor of Bogot's El Espectador. "But violence [toward journalists] is another kind of censorship," he says.

Mr. Cano is no stranger to Colombia's violent censorship. His brother Guillermo was one of the country's most respected journalists and among the loudest critics of corruption. Guillermo was gunned down in 1986 during Medellin drug boss Pablo Escobar's ruthless campaign to fight extradition to the US. The paper continued to print antidrug stories, using a collective name to protect individual reporters. That didn't help: A November 1989 explosion blew the El Espectador building to pieces.

This month, several national and foreign press offices received a letter threatening death to any journalist who supports extradition, which is again being discussed by Colombia under US pressure. The letter was signed "the Extraditables" - the name Escobar used.

"Some stories you just don't investigate, like narco-connections within the government and military," says a journalist from Medellin.

"As bad as the narcos," he continues, "are the economic interests behind the media. When you arrive at a new job, they hand you a list of their friends and enemies."

He lost a job two years ago when he began investigating Samper's campaign financing. After getting too close to narcotics connections, he received death threats. He temporarily left the country and even now rarely visits his native city.

Government officials have pledged to investigate Gerardo Bedoya's murder, but no result is expected in a country where more than 90 percent of crimes go unpunished. Authorities assume the killing was the work of drug dealers.

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