“Freedom of expression is a utopia to which I aspire”: Claudia Julieta Duque

Claudia Julieta Duque is a journalist and human rights defender who PBI has been accompanying since 2010. In her 26 years as a journalist she has published high-impact reports on human rights violations in different national and international media. Because of her publications and reports, Claudia Julieta Duque has been the victim of numerous attacks aimed at silencing her, including kidnap, espionage, aggravated psychological torture and death threats against her and her daughter, in particular for her investigation into the killings of journalist and comedian Jaime Garzón[1].

On a number of occasions, during the legal process against the alleged perpetrators of this psychological torture, her freedom of expression has also been violated. PBI Colombia spoke with her about the case.

PBI: It seems as though your ability to express yourself is being limited in the trial of the former DAS agents for the psychological torture committed against you. Could you tell us about these proceedings and the latest events that have occurred during the hearings?

CJD.- What has been happening since 3 July, materialising on 25 July, is a request from one of the perpetrators (Emiro Rojas Granados, former national deputy director of the DAS and former director of the DAS in Antioquia) who I uncovered in 2003 as being at the head of the legal set-up to divert the Jaime Garzón case, which was the case that I was investigating at that time. He has requested that I be prohibited during the trial from giving opinions, publishing photographs and talking about the case and what is happening in the trial. This is basically the same thing that the DAS has pursued during all their attacks against me: to censor me.

His request is based on two elements: the first is that Emiro Rojas’s hearing was suspended in February due to his son’s illness and at the end of the hearing he requested that the names of his children not be divulged on social media. I said nothing because I have never done that kind of thing and I know what it is like to have a child exposed, not because of illness, but because of threats and torture. The judge said we should remember this specific request not to reveal the son’s name. In April Emiro Rojas was under interrogation during the trial and although he tried to continue lying about current events, what he did and his work at the DAS, the truth is that when we questioned him it all became totally clear. That night I wrote on Twitter that Emiro Rojas held the highest positions in the DAS for more than 30 years, but saw nothing and did not hear anything, including a phrase that said “another one who swam in the pool without getting wet”. It was my summary and my opinion of the lies we heard that April day. In July, when the hearing resumed, Emiro Rojas’ defence asked for me to be censored and sanctioned because apparently I had ignored the judge’s order not to discuss the case (when the judge’s order was not to mention his son).

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That is how this whole process started. They brought evidence against me, tweets that I have written, interviews that I have given, which is funny because it shows what it is like to speak in a country like Colombia; that is to say, my crime is to speak out and it always has been to speak out, so that was shown once again and far from being silent I have continued speaking. The judge was also really offended, because they took statements I made in January (before the supposed order of the judge) where I complained about the release of all those who had been detained in my case due to expiration of terms and said that the process was paralysed, and that there is a state strategy to allow the case to remain in impunity and that deeply offended her. Then on 25 July  she made a statement which, if you see or hear it in full, is a response to my statements, in which she said that I was ridiculing the administration of justice and violating the perpetrators’ presumption of innocence, and based on something that I would call an “eminently visceral statement”, she made the decision to no longer sanction me but to threaten me by prohibiting me from taking photographs, expressing myself in the media, giving my opinion about what is happening in the trial and talking about the evidence in the trial, under penalty of being criminally investigated. What this means is that if I speak, I will submit myself to an investigation for a crime called judicial resolution fraud, which can lead to 10 years in prison and that is what I am facing now, because I have decided not to follow the order, which I consider to be totally illegitimate.

Peace Brigades International© 2011 Charlotte Kesl Photography
PBI Colombia accompanies Claudia Julieta Duque since 2010.

What does freedom of expression mean to you, so that we can understand the deep meaning of this right for a journalist and in a trial like this one?

CJD.- I think the person who best defined freedom of expression was George Orwell. He said that freedom of expression is to say what others do not want to hear and do not want to be said. So freedom of expression is deeply linked to the foundations of democracy and all freedoms and includes freedom of thought, opinion and expression, and in the case of journalists, freedom of the press. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 13 of the American Convention and in Article 20 of the Political Constitution. All three, and in particular Article 19, establish that every person can express their opinions freely, without being harassed for it. I have always talked about that article as a utopian ideal and I have always said that those of us who practice journalism, especially investigative journalism on complex issues like the work I do, are always challenging the veto that has been placed on that utopia. I believe that freedom of expression is just that, a utopia that does not really exist, that is controlled. Especially in Colombia, they want to get us to the point of saying that freedom of expression is to say that two plus two is four and that’s it, but divergent expression, the expression of dissent, of difference; they constantly want to squash all that, so I have always said that freedom of expression is a utopia to which I aspire, I want to believe in it, I want to continue walking along the pathway towards that utopia. However, the more you try, the stronger the veto gets, and that is the situation for journalists and those of us who speak out, all over the world. I am not alone but obviously for me as a journalist and as a human being, freedom of expression is my life project, because it is what I do.


Can you be more specific about freedom of expression in Colombia? Do you see changes or new challenges emerging from your story and the freedom to exercise this right?

In the year 2004 or 2005 José Salgar, the oldest editor in Colombia who worked at El Espectador, said in a tribute to him when he retired, that he had more than 60 years of journalistic exercise and had never got close to press freedom. If that was said by a man who was the oldest media editor in Colombia, you can imagine what we others think and experience. I believe that in Colombia there are impediments and structural obstacles to freedom of expression, especially when the expression is what George Orwell termed as saying what they do not want to be said. Here we see it happening all the time; it is not something that only this government does, or the previous one, but something systematic that is deeply crushing to those who think differently. In the case of the Uribe government, a bill was even introduced to prohibit journalists from interviewing guerrillas under penalty of imprisonment, when this was a fundamental part of the conflict and of information. That bill was not approved, except in society and in collective thinking, because it became an impossible task. Censorship was imposed without the need for a law. In Colombia, this had already been seen in the case of colleagues from the New York Times: they published a report detailing the existence of guidelines used to stimulate killings by the army that was similar to the reason why false positives occurred during Uribe’s government. The problem did not seem to be that this had happened, nor that the government had modified its directives or that the army commander was disgraced, nor was there a single investigation on the subject; what happened was those who gave their opinions and took it upon themselves to investigate and reveal the situation were crushed. The journalists had to leave, the photographer had to leave, and then Daniel Coronell’s column was cancelled because he criticised the censorship of the Semana magazine. It is clear that what really bothers the government and the powers that be in Colombia is not reality itself, but the fact that reality is told, because they have sold us an appearance, they have sold us a discourse that has to be maintained and when someone deviates from that discourse they are crushed. So for me that is the objective of all these attacks and the difference one sees is simply that you can become more strategic for one government than for another. So it is more strategic for this government to silence the victims because what is happening right now is not that they are silencing a journalist, but that they are silencing a victim and telling her that if there is no judicial ruling she cannot speak. I have been waiting for a court ruling for 18 years and there are victims who have been waiting for 25 or 30 years, and what they are saying with what is happening to me is that they cannot speak or complain about that. The perpetrators are no longer happy with everything they have done to us, they are also forcing us not to report them publicly and in my case that is not going to happen.

_Claudia Julieta, Beronika y Jorge Molano

In terms of all these challenges at the national level, you receive a certain level of support from outside of the country, which offers you some guarantees to exercise your right to freedom of expression…

I have received a lot of support, both nationally and internationally. At the national level, all the organisations working for press freedom have supported me, have spoken out and been in solidarity. Internationally I have received support from embassies, organisations, colleagues, and the media and this has always been essential to save my life. I think that the support I have received is public and well-known, so much so that even in December of last year, when the start of the fourth trial was discussed, William Merchán requested that all the national and international organisations that have historically supported me should be investigated, to identify whether they are legitimate or not. That has nothing to do with the act of torture that I suffered, or the accusation against which he should be defending himself, but once again the DAS wanted to attack those who have defended me, only now at the judicial level.
Yes, I believe that I am alive and I maintain myself because of this international support, which gives me the voice and the strength to carry on.

Laura Carrasco and Sophie Helle


[1] Equipo Nizkor: La investigación que le cambió la vida a la periodista Claudia Julieta Duque, 5 de mayo 2017

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