Colombian journalist in line of fire for exposing corruption

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 7 May 2013 05:22 GMT

Investigators lift the body of murdered sports reporter Nelson Osorio out of his pick-up truck in Bogota in this 1998 file photo.

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Over past 30 years, 120 Colombian journalists killed, but latest attempt to silence a reporter - who exposed country’s military prison as “holiday resort” for its privileged detainees - has failed

Colombian journalist Ricardo Calderon was shot at five times while travelling by car on a main road from the city of Ibague back to Bogota last week at 7pm.

Remarkably Calderon escaped without a scratch.

Calderon, who heads the investigative unit at Colombia’s leading weekly news magazine Semana, is known for his hard-hitting reporting that exposes corruption and crimes carried out by the country’s political elite and armed forces.

At the time of the attack, Calderon was researching an ongoing scandal about soldiers and army officials breaking the law and receiving privileges at Colombia’s Tolemaida military prison. Some are behind bars for murder and human rights violations.

Semana magazine first broke the scandal in 2011, when it described the country's main military prison - about a three-hour drive from Bogota - as a “holiday resort.” The report revealed prison guards turning a blind eye to parties in prison cells, prisoners using mobile phones, computers and the internet, inmates being allowed to leave the prison for days on end, and permits to leave the prison on sale for up to $10 a go.

The scandal forced the then prison governor to step down, while Colombia's army chiefs vowed to clamp down on gross misconduct in the prison.

Calderon and other investigative journalists at Semana continued to delve into the shady goings on in the prison and last month published a follow up story, which found that little had changed.

“I’m concerned about the coincidence between the investigations into this subject (Tolemaida prison) and the attack (against Calderon). It’s very clear that it was because of his work as a journalist,” the editor of Semana, Alejandro Santos, told Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper on Saturday.

“Ricardo belongs to a group of Colombian journalists who are so passionate about their work that they are willing to give up their life for a story and an investigation.”

Perhaps the most shocking part of Semana’s latest revelations into gross misconduct at the military prison was a video the magazine published last month. It showed one army sergeant out of prison and shopping in Bogota one morning in March. He is serving a 40-year prison sentence for the murder of four people, among them two boys and a baby.


Calderon was lucky to survive the attack against him, but dozens of journalists in Colombia have not.

Over the past three decades, 120 Colombian journalists have been killed for their work, often because they have dared to expose drug and corruption scandals involving the country’s politicians, drug traffickers and illegal paramilitary groups.

In recent years, attacks against journalists in Colombia have fallen and no journalist has been murdered for their work in Colombia since 2010.

The government provides protection, such as bodyguards and bulletproof cars, to 90 journalists across the country who are considered at risk because of their work.

Yet while Colombia has become a less dangerous place for journalists, most crimes against them go unpunished.

According to 2013 Impunity Index by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Colombia ranks fifth out of 12 countries where journalists are murdered and perpetrators go free. In Colombia, 88 percent of journalist killings have gone unpunished since 1992, says CPJ.

“Impunity has been an incentive to continue threatening or attacking journalists,” Semana said in its latest editorial.


The government was quick to condemn what many have described as an assassination attempt against Calderon and has started an investigation into the case. Recently, the government announced that the Tolemaida military prison will be closed down and a new one built to house convicted members of the country’s armed forces.

It’s not the first time the award-winning Semana magazine has faced threats because of its investigative reporting.
In recent years it has exposed alleged illegal wiretapping by the country’s secret police and extrajudicial killings of innocent men by the country's security forces.

Semana’s editor has said journalists working at the magazine have been followed, their computers hacked and phone calls intercepted, and the newsroom bugged.

Those who know Calderon say he won’t be intimidated and silenced by the attack.

“They failed. They couldn’t kill him or they didn’t want to. But above all they failed if they thought they would silence the reporter,” said Daniel Coronell, a columnist at Semana.

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