“Journalism in Colombia is becoming more complacent”

We return with the latest in our series of PBI Coffee Breaks and today we’re with Claudia Julieta Duque, the journalist and human rights defender who has been investigating and reporting cases for twenty-seven years, covering subjects like forced disappearances, the recruitment of children by both legal and illegal armed actors, the impact of impunity or the infiltration of State institutions by paramilitary structures. (Watch the interview in Spanish)

PBI: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you start working with people to defend their human rights and what were the consequences for you of doing so?

CLAUDIA JULUETA DUQUE:  Like many human rights defenders, not just in Colombia but around the world, I became involved in these issues because of my personal experience.  I grew up in poverty, with a lot of economic deprivation, and I believe that being surrounded by social injustice opened my eyes to the wider situation of injustice in the country. But also, at a young age my father told me that he had been tortured during the dictatorship of Rojas Pinilla.  So all of these experiences gradually led me to question what is happening in the country.  The consequences you face, the most obvious ones are the constant threats, the disparagement of your work. And there are the less obvious ones, like your own colleagues stigmatising you for writing about these issues.

PBI:  Let’s talk about the issues you have worked on and investigated. How much relevance have these issues had?

CJD: Since I was very young I’ve always focused on investigative journalism, since I was a student at university, when it was a very difficult time for students, and I was starting out as a journalist.  It was the era of Pablo Escobar’s narcoterrorism and terrible car bombs in Colombia, but I also had to deal with very complex issues at the time like extrajudicial executions and the assassination of presidential candidates. It was 1989 to be exact, and innocent people were being prosecuted for these kinds of crimes. So from when I was young I investigated these issues and I’ve got into trouble for saying things that aren’t normally said.  Luckily I wasn’t censored and my bosses supported me.  I think it was an experience that few journalists share in Colombia today, that few can say that they aren’t censored for investigating and saying things that are not normal.

Amongst the most well-known investigation I’ve done is my involvement in the Jaime Garzon murder case, and he was well loved throughout the country. It was 1999 and with all of the consequences that it generated, I’m proud to have investigated this process. For the first time in journalistic history and in the history of the justice system here, the intellectual author behind the crime against a journalist was condemned.  Carlos Castaño never served a day in prison, but was eventually found guilty.

I have also investigated the paramilitary infiltration of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.  As a result of the investigation that I did on behalf of the Human Rights Ombudsman, a voluntary agreement, as they were known at the time, was reached between the Army and the Police to stop recruiting children, at least officially.  There have been lots of other issues I’ve got involved in, parapolitics, the Supreme Court, corruption.

PBI:  Tell us what impact the recent guilty verdict against the former director of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) will have on a legal or political level.

CJD: I believe that the DAS case is paradigmatic in terms of the evidence that was found.  It isn’t as if the state security agencies in Latin America and the world are untarnished, but in Colombia there was such an overwhelming amount of evidence that showed the political workings of a systematic persecution against certain civil society groups, and its aim was basically to neutralise them.  So I was a victim of these practices too and, unfortunately, some see me as one of the DAS’s worst victims, but beyond being a victim myself, I think that the DAS case is very complex.

For the other victims, there has been no complete, integral, nor indeed any real justice. The policies of persecution were covered up, and they are being repeated inside other State agencies. But I do also think that much of the truth that came out, and it hasn’t all come out, will reveal what it means when organised crime takes over the state, and I think the DAS was exemplary in that.  In the DAS there was a conjunction between paramilitarism, drug trafficking and organised crime in many issues. These included corruption, paramilitaries dividing the spoils of the DAS and state contracts, amongst many other things.  I think that the issue of the DAS should be studied more closely, and whilst some say that the truth on the DAS has all come out, I think there is a lot more to come.

Personally speaking, my case is not joined with the others.  Mine is considered to be, fortunately now with proof, a case of psychological torture. I have achieved that and got this far, it isn’t just to revel in victimhood, it is also a landmark in the human rights struggle because it’s a crime that is very difficult to prove. It’s a crime where your own self is at the core of the crime, your soul, your essence, what you are.  To have to prove and demonstrate that these things are happening, that psychological torture exists and to arrive at the level of proof needed to sustain the charges, with three people convicted to date, with five more on trial and eight under investigation, I think it is a triumph, not just for me, but for defending human rights in general. So much so that in countries like Guatemala where human rights defenders are trying to bring a case for torture using the jurisprudence in my case as precedent, because there too a pattern of systematic threats has emerged, of attacks against family members, etc.

Claudia Julieta Duque
Claudia Julieta Duque

PBI: What are the most delicate subjects that a journalist in Colombia has to cover, and how do you see the situation for journalists now, and also in light of the signature of the peace agreements?

CJD:   Unfortunately I think that journalism in Colombia is in a process of involution.  From being courageous, heroic and determined in the 1980s. During the worst times of the attacks against us in the 80s, we lost 100 colleagues who were murdered.  It isn’t what it used to be, and journalism is becoming more timid every day, more complacent. Investigations in Colombia are almost always related to financial corruption. Other crimes are spoken of less and less, because that is the trench we have had to dig ourselves into to make a refuge for ourselves as journalists in this country.  Journalists have stopped covering certain subjects because they are dangerous. What issues, you ask? I can be utterly clear with you about that: today everyone talks about paramilitarism as being in the past, but there are patterns that keep repeating themselves, that continue to be systematic. They follow each other’s leads, they tow the official line, and are swayed by the measures created to fight it, but it is there, it continues to be there and very little is being said about it, or it is being said but not being investigated, it’s simply not being investigated.

I’d also say that issues that directly affect organised crime, which has gained a seat in power, it’s something that’s not just affecting Colombia but the whole of Latin America. There are organised criminal groups which are in dispute, that are fighting in front of our very eyes, but it only reaches the news of it happens in public, and there is very little investigation.  The issue of human rights is vetoed; it isn’t investigated or reported on. A while ago a report came out, based on a study by the Antonio Nariño University which said that only 3% of human rights violations are reported in the country.  I think that the percentage today is much higher, it has undoubtedly gone up, but there are subjects that are not dealt with by the media and as I say, the investigation of financial corruption will continue to be the trench the journalists have fallen back into, to try to still be doing something.

I think that there is exceptional journalism too, there is some, but I think that on the whole in Colombia, journalism in experiencing a drop in morale, it is regressing, it is more censored each day, more self-censored, more silent, and in the regions there are no more journalists to tell about what is happening. The year they killed Jaime Garzon, in 1999, there were 32 regional newspapers and now there are just 10, so that also shows us what’s been happening.  In light of what we are going through, the freedom of the press needs to be genuinely restored.  This means allowing media outlets which died in the conflict to be created or revived, because in this country it isn’t just journalists who are killed but the media itself. It is a very serious consequence, this silencing of the regions, and I think it is one of the worst legacies of the armed conflict, and its greatest challenge.

PBI: We seem to be in the final phase of the negotiations process between the Government and the FARC guerrillas.  Do you think the signatures can bring change?

CJD: There will be changes because it is an actor of the conflict giving up arms.  An actor that needs to give up the arms, clearly, and I am not against that at all, but I am very pessimistic about the future and what will happen during what they are calling the post-conflict, because what we’ve been seeing in Havana, specifically on the Justice Agreement, is an agreement that will leave all the actors unpunished.  The Special Tribunal for Peace was announced in September and then amended in December. Amended in such a way as to take away its force, take away its power to prosecute and punish.  Already we’ve seen in the news every day that even the nominations to the tribunal have already been negotiated. This will become another bureaucratic issue where impunity is negotiated.  But if you add to that the Police Code, the Citizen Security Law, the new Military Justice Code, you realised that the Colombian State isn’t really preparing for peace but for a different kind of social and political control. One that may be much more dangerous, more focused, and in an urban context, so much so that the President is already talking about urban warfare.

So I’m not very optimistic.  I am actually a critic, and think that these peace agreements violated international human rights norms on the issue of justice.  I am not an Uribe supporter, but as a human rights defender I have to be consistent and I think that the Peace Agreement is a series of political concessions that need to be critiqued, reflected upon by the country and that the euphoria in peace’s name, the peace they are selling to us as an agreement between well-meaning souls, and that those who do not support are bad, well, I think that is negative too because someone should be able to express themselves negatively about the agreements which really are leading towards impunity. And I do agree with Huma Rights Watch, I agree with Amnesty International, and in general my view is that the country is creating a legal architecture that is more about a dictatorial kind of social and political control, with the disarming of one of the parties to the war which I insist is vital. But I’m not really so sure that it will bring peace. I hope it will reduce the violence with regards to that particular group.  But, the situation with the new Police Code and the new Military Justice Code, with the Citizen Security Law, with all the norms they are creating, I am worried for the future in terms of human rights violations.

Claudia Julieta Duque
Claudia Julieta Duque

PBI:  We know that you have trained and worked as an expert in differential protection with vulnerable collectives, both in Colombia and outside.  How do you think we need to adapt to provide protection with a differential focus?

CJD:  I’m very grateful for that question because I think that in Colombia one our customs is to use the nicest words to describe the worst practices.  So when they gave us a law of impunity called Justice and Peace Law, now they give us a differential focus, which all it does is divide the different groups.  The women, the human rights defenders, the councillors, the indigenous peoples, but when you look at it, 99% of them have bullet proof jackets, 99% have two-way radios and very few are actually constructing a differential focus on protection.  I think that the State is completely insensitive and blind to the fact that the communities and people under threat have a history and based on that history they can construct a different kind of protection that doesn’t necessarily mean an armed man at your side, or a bullet proof jacket, or an armoured car. The State doesn’t understand this and imposes measures that are, from my point of view, not the most appropriate. There are some interesting experiences with indigenous peoples in Cauca, who have had different perspective and different struggles. In general, I think that the differential focus has only served to impose the same measures on different groups of the population. One of the things that needs to happen for there to be a genuine differential focus to protection is the consultation and participation of those who stand to benefit from the measures. In general, this isn’t happening, only for those who have Precautionary Measures of protection from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

PBI: Thank you very much Claudia Julieta for sharing you work and your views with us.

CJD: Thanks for having me for another cup of coffee with PBI.

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