Press Under Fire
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TERENCE SMITH: Ignacio “Nacho” Gomez is one of the last of a literally dying breed: Investigative reporters in war-torn Colombia.
IGNACIO “NACHO” GOMEZ: I think that the things I have written about are things that have to be said in the country.
TERENCE SMITH: Reporting in Colombia has exacted a terrible price. Since 1992, 55 journalists have been murdered, most as a direct result of their work.
For his persistent reporting, primarily for el Espectador, Colombia’s oldest newspaper, Nacho recently received the 2002 International Press Freedom Award, given by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
IGNACIO “NACHO” GOMEZ: There is no reason journalists are being killed in Colombia; many terrible secrets remain untold.
And some days I get worried, because the killers of journalists in Colombia may actually finish their work.
TERENCE SMITH: Reporters in Colombia face a daunting array of threats from the warring factions in the country’s four-decade-long civil war.
All of the combatants — two Marxist rebel armies, the Colombian military, and a well-armed paramilitary force — have targeted journalists. Amid this upheaval and civil strife, politicians have also leveled threats at journalists.
And lastly, the barons of Colombia’s drug trade have ordered the kidnapping, menacing, and assassination, of journalists.
IGNACIO “NACHO” GOMEZ: I decided that I was not going to have kids.
TERENCE SMITH: You decided not to have children so that they wouldn’t be orphans, or at least fatherless?
IGNACIO “NACHO” GOMEZ: Because it was so easy to have me killed.
TERENCE SMITH: And shockingly easy it has been.
The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Colombia the most dangerous place in the western hemisphere to be a journalist.
Colombia is also a principal beneficiary of American aid. Nearly $2 billion sent to Colombia since 1999 puts it near the top of the list of countries receiving U.S. foreign assistance.
The bulk of that money goes to the military, to fight the infamous drug trade and the guerillas. Both the rebels and paramilitaries have been designated “foreign terrorist organizations” by the U.S. State Department.
American Special Forces are training Colombian troops in the counter-insurgency effort, making Colombia the first place where the war on drugs has met the war on terror.
But the combination of drugs and terror is nothing new in Colombia. The money made selling one, helps produce the other, and reporting on either can be dangerous. It’s a fact to which Nacho Gomez can attest.
On May 24, 2000, Gomez eluded an attempted kidnapping in Bogotá. The next day, a female colleague was kidnapped, beaten, and raped. Her captors, believed to be paramilitaries, told her Nacho and three other reporters were marked for death.
IGNACIO “NACHO” GOMEZ: The next day, the police analyzed the case, and told to us that the police was able to protect almost all of the group, all of the journalists in the group, but not in my case because I was in a multiple risk situation that they called, technically.
TERENCE SMITH: So, you were a target of everybody?
IGNACIO “NACHO” GOMEZ: Yeah, they advised me to get out until the situation can cool down.
TERENCE SMITH: So Gomez left for a year at Harvard on a Neiman fellowship. Neiman years are normally mid- career sabbaticals, but for Nacho, it became a safe haven.
MARIA CRISTINA CABALLERO: I think it is a miracle that I am alive.
TERENCE SMITH: But Nacho was not the first Colombian journalist to seek refuge there. Maria Cristina Caballero, a 1999 Press Freedom Award winner, also left Colombia after repeated threats.
MARIA CRISTINIA CABALLERO: I decided if I show fear, they will be happy.
Then I tried to continue my investigations, and when they called and talked with me personally, I would say, “Go ahead, kill me.” Several times I had to say that.
TERENCE SMITH: “Go ahead and kill me”?
MARIA CRISTINA CABALLERO: Yes. Because that… in this way, you will not stop the investigations. It was very sad because I say, “why do I have to leave?” These people are achieving the goal of stopping the people that are trying to help this country in some way.
TERENCE SMITH: Both Caballero and Gomez had reported extensively on the 1997 massacre at Mapiripan, a small village in southeastern Colombia. Their reporting implicated the primary right wing paramilitary group, which is known by its Spanish acronym, the AUC.
TERENCE SMITH: It is led by Carlos Castano, who was recently indicted in the United States for drug trafficking. The AUC also has close ties to the Colombian military.
Reporters investigating the ties between the two take a great risk, says Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
FRANK SMYTH: Whenever a journalist pursues that particular line of investigation, they are likely to suffer reprisals.
And now you have a situation where the United States is getting more involved at a time where the Colombian journalists are feeling more threatened and more under siege than ever before, and there are fewer journalists pursuing these tough stories. And the combination is, I think, not good.
MARIA CRISTINA CABALLERO: With the intensification of the conflict in Colombia, the manipulation of the information has become a key weapon.
TERENCE SMITH: The manipulation of the information?
MARIA CRISTINA CABALLERO: Of information. And then they are trying to manipulate the journalists with fear, with threats, with kidnapping journalists.
And they kill the messenger.
RAY SUAREZ: And what of American news organizations trying to cover the growing U.S. involvement in Colombia?
FRANK SMYTH: I think partly, for a number of reasons, the American journalists are in Colombia trying to cover so many things at once; it’s difficult to follow those very tough stories that require lengthy investigations.
TERENCE SMITH: Maria Cristina Caballero now lives in the United States, but has returned to Colombia on several occasions to continue her reporting.
Nacho Gomez is now back in Colombia, reporting for a television news program. He says though many Colombians know and appreciate his work, he is one of the few investigative reporters still digging.
IGNACIO “NACHO” GOMEZ: I am feeling a lot more alone.
And I’ve been told in the street — “Oh, thank you for saying that, but you are the only one saying that right now in the country,” — it’s so sad, but the media in the country is dying.