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November 13, 2006
Colombian journalists must work, live with threats

Nov. 13, 2006.- It's hard for Carlos Patiño, a 24-year old photographer for the local La Opinión newspaper, to do his job these days: In addition to living in one of Colombia's most conflictive areas and working for an often-targeted publication, he has two bodyguards with him at all times.

They accompany Patiño because of threats he received after photographing the arrest of a suspected drug trafficker at the local airport. The suspect did not want his photo published, and police did not want the public to see that the suspect was not handcuffed.

''The problem is the camera,'' Patiño told The Miami Herald. ``With the written word, it's one person's word versus another's. But with the photograph, you have the proof.''

Unfortunately, Patiño is only half-right.

Photographers, print, radio and television reporters are all targets of attacks, threats and harassment in a country that the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranks as one of the five most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.

This year alone, three radio journalists have been gunned down in Colombia and six other journalists of different media have fled their homes because of threats and other intimidations. Over the last decade, CPJ says that 28 journalists have been killed in Colombia due to their work.

The suspected sources of the attacks include politicians, left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

''It takes mettle to be a journalist in this Andean nation,'' CPJ wrote in a special report on Colombia issued last year.

In Cúcuta, a town perched along the Venezuelan border, journalists work in particularly difficult circumstances. The area was once a leftist guerrilla stronghold and has always been a nest for gunrunners, smugglers and drug traffickers. In the late 1990s, right-wing paramilitaries entered the area.

All these illegal groups have sought to exert control over the region and the media here, especially La Opinión, the only newspaper in this city. In 1993, guerrillas assassinated one of the paper's founders, Eustorgio Colmenares. Three years ago, suspected guerrillas detonated a bomb in front of the newspaper's office.

In the last few years, the paramilitaries have been leaning on the paper, the paper's editors acknowledge.

After it ran a story on the the paramilitaries' efforts to enforce a curfew and force men to cut their hair and lose their earrings, local paramilitary leaders contacted the editors and asked for a front-page correction. The paper refused, and then reached out to the national paramilitary leader to calm the situation.

''The armed conflict implies a certain amount of self-censorship,'' said assistant director Cicerón Florez. ``You feel afraid, even if they don't threaten you directly.''

The leftist guerrillas also remain a threat to the paper, so much so that editors have been reluctant to send their reporters to rebel-held zones in recent months.

In Patiño's case, the most direct assault on his work has come from government authorities. After he took the photos of the drug trafficker, local intelligence personnel snatched his camera and removed a memory card. Patiño already had taken out the memory card that contained the trafficker's photos, and the story ran the next day.

After the story appeared, men on motorcycles circled the apartments of Patiño and the writer of the story, Christian Herrera, and unidentified callers used colorful words to warn them to leave Cúcuta or face the consequences.

Herrera took their advice, going to Chile to study for awhile. He has since returned and is back in journalism. Patiño stayed, with the help of the bodyguards. However, his problems haven't stopped.

He says that in March he was taking photos of a public official attending a private political fundraiser, something Colombian law prohibits, when the official and his handlers physically subdued Patiño and took his camera.

''When someone says there are threats against journalists, he isn't being facetious,'' La Opinión wrote in an editorial, two days after the incident. ``He's not hallucinating and doesn't have a complex about being persecuted, nor is he obsessed. It's a constant reality and that is confirmed by the diversity of cases of aggression against these victims, who are almost always persecuted because of their work.

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