No good news from Havana for Colombian regional journalists

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On February 20 Secretary of State John Kerry appointed Bernard Aronson as special envoy to the Colombian peace talks. After 2 and ½ years of negotiations in Cuba between the Colombian government and the FARC, the appointment represents the formal US legitimization of the peace process and its reaching the final stage. President Santos’ government and the FARC, who are both especially eager to show some progress to skeptic Colombians, welcomed Obama administration’s decision.

But back home, while in the main Colombian cities hundreds of people marched in show of support for peace, in provincial towns and rural areas the conflict and its supposedly related violence remains business as usual. The year started with an alarming increase in violence against the press: two regional journalists killed in few weeks. Journalists working far from the main cities are the favorite targets of paramilitary forces, criminal bands, guerrillas, corrupted local officials or powerful caciques.

In such a gloomy scenario, no matter if in Havana the parts will reach a successful peace agreement; without addressing structural problems related to impunity, local officers corruptions and the spreading of criminal bands, “peace” will not change the working conditions of the regional press in the country.

Being far from the centre, being defenseless

At the beginning of March, while shopping in a bakery in Palmira, a provincial town in the Valle del Cauca Department, Edgar Quintero, journalist for local Radio Luna, was shot dead. Few weeks earlier, in the Caquetá region, another veteran journalist, Luis Antonio Peralta Cuellar, was gunned down by a hired killer just outside the radio where he was working. More recently, Human Rights Watch released in a report the evidences of death threats received in the troubled city port of Buenaventura by eight journalists, who decided to let down their investigations in judiciary cases.

What all these recent cases have in common is that Colombian smaller towns or isolated areas are often the perfect background for silencing the local press and for journalists to practice self-censorship for survival.

The disparity between the centre and regional areas in terms of measures of protection for journalists is one of the main reasons for journalists’ insecurity. In many cases, threaten regional journalists are provided with less than half of the protection received by their colleagues in similar situations in Bogotá or Medellin. The most striking case was that of Luis Carlos Cervantes, who unsuccessfully attempted to get again protection from several state and international institutions in Medellin. Cervantes was finally killed in a small municipality of the Bajo Cauca region, in the Antioquia Department. According to a recent Reporters Without Border (RWB) report, the Bajo Cauca region is actually on a global scale one of the worst places to be a journalist, reaching level of insecurity similar to places like Libya, Syria, Iraq or Ukraine.

Havana peace talks, structural problems and the fate of regional journalists

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After the last journalist assassination, a high representative of the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa (SIP) strongly criticized the Colombian government and declared that “after lot of years of promises it looks like they are laughing at us in the face while they are killing our colleagues”. The Colombian government, which ironically quickly condemned the killing of Western journalists in Iraq and Syria, kept an almost complete silence in the recent cases where local journalists have been targets of violence.

And while a peace deal is on its way in Havana, practicing journalism remains an extremely dangerous profession in Colombian regions. Even if the FARC and the government already reached a feeble agreement on the organization of the press in the country rural areas, a successful peace deal will probably only remove one of the actors involved in the intimidations against the local press, but it will maintain the general country structural problems behind threats and killings.

Indeed, main reason behind journalists’ threats is to investigate or inform on local corruption cases or criminal bands illegal activities. According to the Bogotá based organization Foundacion para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) recent report, there have been often complicity between instigators of crimes, local officials, representatives of state institutions and criminal bands. The FLIP registered since the end of the 70s the assassination of more than 140 journalists, but only at the end of 2014, and for the first time, the Colombian justice condemned the former mayor of a provincial town of the Bolivar Department for being the intellectual instigator of the assassination of a local journalist.

With a likely end of the conflict approaching, in Colombian regions and rural areas FARC will probably disarm, but criminal bands will stay, and probably multiplies; structural problems related to judiciary impunity, local corrupted officials, and powerful crime organizations seem to remain unaddressed. In that case, for Colombian regional journalists no real good news will come from Havana.