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Jonathan Bock: “In Colombia we are facing information deserts with high levels of self-censorship”

Jonathan Bock, director of the Foundation for Press Freedom of Colombia (Flip).Flip

Despite all kinds of pressure, the Foundation for Press Freedom (Flip) has been defending the work of journalists for 24 years in Colombia, a country plagued by various types of violence where the profession continues to be a high-risk profession. Jonathan Bock, director of the Flip, talks to EL PAÍS about a recent episode of censorship, threats to the right to information and the climate of freedom of expression in the country.

Question. How would you define the moment that press freedom is going through in Colombia?

Answer. I think that two phenomena come together – one that is an old heritage and the other that is something new – that attack freedom of expression. The old heritage is the reactivation of violence, and in Colombia since the peace accords were signed [a finales de 2016] Until today, we have seen threats against journalists double. This leads us to have a map of Colombia with many blind spots in Putumayo, Nariño, Arauca, Cauca, where we do not know what is happening, who the new armed actors are, nor do we have a clear and detailed X-ray of the different networks that are affecting the communities in all those places. This old heritage is accompanied not only by physical violence, but also by pressure from different actors. Legal actors such as mayors, public officials, businessmen, who seek to pressure the media.

P. What is the most recent phenomenon?

R. It is very difficult to separate it from what is happening in other Latin American countries and what we could call a ‘Trump effect’, and it is the contempt on the part of officials towards journalists and the press. A direct contempt, keeping the proportions, as President Trump does noting the media. Here we increasingly see that the most representative political leaders do not blush when they point out journalists for misinformation, and they hang up labels that generate a general stigma towards the media. It is a damage that ends up being irreparable because it also turns society against journalists, journalists themselves against journalists, and it is going very deep. It is an effect that erodes more silently.

P. You have said that journalism continues to be a high risk profession in Colombia. What are the main dangers?

R. Physical violence. We have seen since 2018 how journalists who are going to cover what is happening in Cauca, for example, threaten them and prevent them from doing the coverage and have to leave. There are journalists who have had to go into exile. There are threats that lead them to definitely put aside the story they are covering and focus elsewhere. In Colombia we are facing many blind spots, information deserts where the level of self-censorship is so high that the most relevant issues for the communities are not discussed. What is being told does not delve into the fundamental aspects to understand the network between phenomena such as corruption, drug trafficking and organized crime.

P. We have seen risks when covering social mobilizations. Has the aggressiveness of the public force towards journalists covering protests increased?

R. What happened in November and December, with the demonstrations that generated an important change in the way in which citizens are mobilized, also marked a turning point in the attitude of the police towards the press. Obviously, demonstrations are always a risky scenario for journalists, not only in Colombia, but the volume of violence that we document against journalists in the marches of November, December, at the beginning of this year and recently in September, does mark us some questions. We still do not have an answer, but it leads us to think that there may be an order within the public force to attack the press. Despite being fully identified, they are still attacked.

P. Repeated episodes of surveillance, profiling and military espionage against national and foreign reporters have also been reported.

R. It has been a practice of the State to spy on and intimidate journalists through different tactics. Since 1978, in all governments there has been a scandal of persecution and illegal monitoring of journalists. It is difficult to understand it differently than this is a state practice where we have different intelligence forces that have been receiving orders to spy on journalists, their sources and their movements. The only way to break this vicious cycle is to advance the investigations. In the most recent case, reported earlier this year, that has not happened. We are left with the echo of the indignation of President Duque and other officials, where the last consequences were to be reached, and unfortunately it does not go beyond that bombastic headline. There is no strong action on it after seven or eight months. The message is dire.

P. This year the vice president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, denounced a journalist for insult and the Prosecutor’s Office has summoned the journalist who denounced an episode of censorship in the public media system. How do you interpret that environment?

R. Presidents are not only called to react when a serious act against the press occurs, they are also responsible for sending messages of support and support for the work of journalists. This is extremely important, and it is not happening with the current government. Not only that these messages are not sent, but these types of actions are not rejected either. These are unfortunate signs of the government’s understanding of freedom of expression and the abuses that are committed. If a president makes a constant call, it is more difficult than an official, in this case the vice president, dares to file a criminal action against a journalist – at a good time he decided to suspend it. Also the actions of the Prosecutor’s Office where they are going to pressure a source, a whistleblower, who dared to denounce one of the most serious and flagrant acts of censorship in the Colombian public media system.

P. The Prosecutor’s Office even had the intention of inspecting the Flip headquarters as part of the investigation of the person who denounced Juan Pablo Bieri, then manager of RTVC, the public media system. How did this case start and what has been the role of Flip?

R. This is the most serious case and with the greatest evidence of censorship in the Colombian public media system. It begins when the system manager gives orders seeking to censor a television program [‘Los puros criollos’] to stop broadcasting on the public channel Signal Colombia because he did not like the personal opinions of the presenter, whose name is Santiago Rivas. That is what we cannot lose sight of. Juan Pablo Bieri, appointed by President Iván Duque as manager of RCTV, intends to block Santiago Rivas for the comments he was making on his social networks. This generates problems within RTVC, which are reported by different officials. Among them, Diana Díaz, who ends up contributing a conversation where Juan Pablo Bieri gives her the direct order to remove the program. That is what must be brought up to understand this case.

P. What happens next

R. After the conversation is made public, and Juan Pablo Bieri is forced to resign from his position, unfortunately, and that is one of the wrong signals that this Government has sent in its duty to defend freedom of expression, he rehired Bieri as a senior adviser to the presidency. This is to clothe a character who was in charge of managing public systems and gave orders to censor contrary to what our Constitution establishes. In the current situation we are in, Juan Pablo Bieri criminally denounced Diana Díaz at the beginning of 2019 and a month ago the Prosecutor’s Office took up this case and has committed a series of abuses against her and the Foundation for Press Freedom.

P. What have these abuses been?

R. Against Diana Díaz in the first place because he notified her of a hearing to impute charges on November 18. In those proceedings that he has carried out, he requested a judicial inspection of the Flip office with completely disproportionate and illegitimate characteristics, where he asked us to give him all the information from the security cameras to know all the people who had entered the Flip during a period of time of a month and a half –between December 2018 and January 2019–.

P. Catalina Botero, who was a special rapporteur for freedom of expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has said that Diana Díaz is protected by international law. You have considered the imputation of charges disproportionate, why?

R. It must be said categorically that this criminal proceeding against Diana Díaz is absurd, because it goes against those recommendations and international standards that precisely seek to protect the source. And what they say is that the State’s criminal or administrative apparatus cannot be used to persecute people who dared to report. And here it is very important to highlight the courage and bravery of Diana Díaz, despite a very high personal cost, who dared to denounce someone who ended up covered by the power of the president.

P. How do you get to that intention of inspecting the Flip? Have you faced a similar situation in the past?

R. La Flip is a 24-year-old civil society organization that is constantly talking to journalists, documenting cases and receiving highly sensitive information. We have never received a request of this type, which clearly asks us to violate the reservation of the source, the right to privacy and ultimately is an attack on the fulfillment of our mandate. It is disproportionate, and if we see it in legal aspects, this would not have passed a review of a guarantee control judge. But beyond that, there is the negative message it leaves in the environment. We cannot understand it differently from a blatant intimidation of work by organizations like Flip.

P. The closeness of President Duque to Attorney General Francisco Barbosa is known. The protagonist of this case, Bieri, remains an advisor to the Presidency. Are you worried about those links?

R. Exactly, it is difficult to take that closeness out of the equation and not perceive that it was what was marking the development of this entire process. That was precisely one of the points that was addressed in the discussion with the prosecutor, and he assured us that he was not aware of the actions of the prosecutor who had initiated this case. That it was in no way an action that was related to the link he has with Juan Pablo Bieri or with President Duque. That said, there are still doubts as to what could have motivated this prosecutor to reactivate a case that is clearly inadmissible after a year and a half. I leave with the feeling that the attorney general understands that this was disproportionate actions and that therefore he made commitments to review them. It is essential that this position of the prosecutor is translated into concrete facts, specifically that the hearing to charge Diana Díaz is not held.