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Extended Interview: Frank Smyth

Frank Smyth, the Washington, D.C. representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, explains why Colombia is such a dangerous place for reporters.

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    Why is Colombia such a dangerous story for journalists to cover?


    Colombia is an extremely dangerous story for a number of reasons.

    One is that there are a number of different perpetrators who attack journalists and continue to attack journalists. It used to be drug traffickers, now the greatest threat is coming from right-wing paramilitary groups as well as left-wing guerrilla groups along with drug traffickers.

    And there were certain stories that if journalists pursue those stories — particularly who is behind a lot of the political violence in the country — those are the kinds of stories that are getting reprisals.

    The government recognizes that paramilitary groups commit the bulk of the country's political murders. But the real issue that's up for investigation is to what degree are these paramilitary forces being supported by military forces?

    And Ignacio Gómez has been extremely intrepid in pursuing these military-paramilitary ties and for that he's been personally targeted.

    You've had a number of excellent [Colombian] journalists who have fled the country to Spain and elsewhere as a result of threats from the paramilitaries and other groups. A number of other journalists have decided to no longer pursue these stories that bring these reprisals.

    In addition, the country's civilian judiciary — the attorney general's office — over a year ago — the country's top two civilian prosecutors left with their families after the government dropped a rock-solid case of military-paramilitary collaboration as a result of military pressure.

    So now you have a situation where you have very few journalists pursuing the tough stories; you have the top civilian prosecutors leaving the country.

    This means that journalists don't have the support from the Colombian state in terms of prosecuting these crimes independently, as well as prosecuting and investigating attacks against journalists. And that's why someone like Ignacio Gómez really is alone in terms of the press corps and in terms of the civilian judiciary; in terms of being one of the only people who is continuing to investigate this all-important matter.

    Colombian paramilitary groups admit that they murder journalists and others as a result of their political [agenda].

    But the real issue they're trying to protect in my opinion is their relationship with U.S.-backed military forces. That's the issue: whenever a journalist pursues that particular line of investigation, they are likely to suffer reprisals. And the 'paras' [paramilitaries] have a number of different networks. There have been a number of journalists threatened in Colombia who have then gone to safe houses elsewhere in the region — and they've been threatened in those safe houses.

    Makes for a very difficult situation — and they've something of a global network.

    It makes it all the more crucial that there are journalists on the ground investigating what's happening. And now you have a situation where the U.S. is getting more involved at a time when Colombian journalists are feeling more threatened and more under siege than ever before and — with fewer journalists pursuing these tough stories — the combination is, I think, not good.


    Are U.S. newspapers missing the story in Colombia?


    There are not many American newspapers that have staff full-time and correspondents in Bogota. [Colombia], relative to El Salvador 15 years ago, is receiving less [U.S.] military aid. You had great deal many more reporters back then than you have in Colombia today.

    And I think partly for a number of reasons, the American journalists who are in Colombia are trying to cover so many things at once, it's difficult to follow these very tough stories which require lengthy investigations — which is why Nacho Gómez is one of the only journalists of any kind who's pursuing them….