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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 May, 2005, 17:37 GMT 18:37 UK
'Silenced by the gun'

Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work.

Forty Colombian journalists have been killed in the last five years, many for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption.

On World Press Freedom Day, the BBC News website spoke to Enrique Santos Calderon, editor-in-chief of prominent Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, about the threats facing his profession.


El Tiempo is like a bunker.

I move around with bodyguards and armoured cars all the time.

It is terrible for your private life. But in Colombia the level of danger is such that it is not advisable to lower your guard.

Colombian soldier stands guard
Fear is a powerful weapon
The drug trafficker, the Marxist guerrilla and the right-wing paramilitary see the press as one of the few institutions that criticises them.

So journalists are singled out by these outlawed armed groups as targets to attack.

Recently, corrupt politicians have also learned to fish in the cross-fire between these groups - to find journalists who have exposed them.

But the worst thing is the intimidation and the threats. It is the slow death of imposed silence.

This leads to self-censorship. It creates a dictatorship of fear in the regions of conflict, which is hampering freedom of expression.

Changing threat

The violence unleashed by the big drug cartels in the late 1980s was unprecedented.

A man in Bogota looks at photos of the disappeared and killed
This phenomenon of impunity is the major threat to press freedom in Colombia and in Latin America
It was brutal. They would kill anybody - any editor, publisher or reporter - who exposed them.

I had a lot of threats at that time. I had to leave the country on a couple of occasions.

That random, indiscriminate violence has diminished. Now it has become more subtle - bribery or intimidation.

The fact that violence has come down does not mean that the press is more free.

The press and the regional radio in zones of conflict are the most exposed.

Anonymous reporting

They are forced to take sides or to silence themselves - not to talk about sensitive political issues or the violation of human rights by one group or the other.

At El Tiempo we have to rotate our correspondents in these areas constantly. Their names are not published.

Colombian police officers stand guard on a blown-up bridge
There are many hurdles to covering Colombia's conflict

We never have the local correspondent cover sensitive issues. We send someone from Bogota, who does the work and returns immediately.

If he stays he will be singled out and subjected to some kind of oppressive measure.

To move in these regions we have to ask permission from the army.

You go in as a group and you try to do your job. You even have to confront the armed groups to say "Are you going to let us do our job?"

It is always risky. You never know what's going to happen.

Impunity

In addition to the threat of violence, there is a scandalous incapacity to punish those who threaten, kidnap or assassinate journalists.

This phenomenon of impunity is the major threat to press freedom in Colombia and in Latin America.

Impunity feeds violence against the press, especially from the masterminds who order the murders.

The site of a rebel attack in Toribio
Civilians are also targets in Colombia's 40-year civil conflict
If they go free, they always feel free to silence the press by the gun.

I am president of the impunity commission of the Inter-American Press Association. This commission and local media organisations have done a lot of things to try to improve the situation.

We have created a rapid-response unit, in which journalists are dedicated full-time to investigating killings.

Journalists are now mobilising after any journalist's murder. The main daily newspapers and the two national news magazines have done common investigations into the last assassinations.

We publish the same investigation the same day - to press the authorities and to expose the suspects.

It has helped when people demonstrate. It has contributed to the lessening of violence.

But we have a long way to go.



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