Thu, May 25, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Colombians self-censor to stay alive

JITTERY JOURNALISTS Press freedom has been under assault for years, with 28 reporters murdered in the past decade, so many in the media are gagging themselves

AP , BOGOTA

It was the sort of scoop any ambitious journalist would die for. Writing it up could have cost Jorge Quintero his life.

With the help of local officials, a bank manager in the small southwestern Colombian town of Florencia allegedly funneled US$11 million in public funds into the foreign bank account of a convicted drug trafficker.

Despite sitting on a pile of incriminating documents, Quintero wrote nothing.

"I wanted to do something but I was afraid," said Quintero, correspondent in Florencia for Colombia's largest daily, El Tiempo. "You know in this town who to mess with and who not."

A year later, when Colombia's slow wheels of justice acted and the criminal ring was dismantled, the story was front-page news.

Quintero's dilemma is shared by scores of journalists throughout Colombia, where press freedom has for years been under assault. To expose the crimes of outlaws -- be they drug traffickers, leftist rebels or right-wing militias -- can be an invitation to assassination.

Yet unlike in years past, the biggest gag on the press today is coming from journalists themselves, especially in far-flung provinces, where state presence is weak.

In most cases, it is merely a form of self-defense.

Over the past decade, 28 journalists have been killed in Colombia, making it the second most dangerous country to report from after Iraq, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Most of the crimes against journalists, committed by all sides in the entrenched conflict, are never solved.

Only one journalist has been slain over the past two years in Colombia, a decline President Alvaro Uribe has attributed to the success of his strong-handed security policies.

Yet several journalists say that the casualties are fewer because their work has never been more muzzled.

A CPJ report last year entitled Untold Stories found more than 30 radio, TV and print journalists who admitted to soft-pedaling or turning a blind eye to important news.

Marisol Gomez Giraldo, the national editor at El Tiempo, says her correspondents routinely reject assignments for fear of reprisals -- and when they do pursue a sensitive story they often report half of what they know and refuse a byline.

Meanwhile, certain conflict zones are virtually off-limits. In the province of Arauca, the paper has been without a corespondent for over two years. The result: journalists increasingly rely on the often inaccurate reports of the military, feeding the public a one-sided view of the war.

"It's the most dangerous moment we've ever we've faced as a profession," said Gomez Giraldo, who as a cub reporter covered the drug-fueled bloodletting last decade in Medellin, in which journalists were often targeted.

"But you put yourself in the shoes of the journalist in the field, who makes US$400 a month, and it's easy to forgive them for not risking their lives," he said.

In the most extreme case of self-censorship, journalists simply walk away from their beat.

So goes the story of Jenny Manrique, a reporter at Vanguardia Liberal in Bucaramanga, 300km northeast of Bogota. After reporting on how paramilitary groups stole relief checks from people left homeless by floods, the 25-year-old reporter received anonymous threats on her mobile phone.

When the threats followed her to her parents' home phone in Bogota, she fled the country. With the help of the CPJ and Colombia's Press Freedom Foundation, she's been living since March in a safe house in Lima, Peru, on a stipend that's less than half of what she earned before.

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