A Colombian soldier fires a mortar during clashes with FARC guerrilla fighters, September 19, 2003. | Photo: AP/Efrain Patino

‘It’s still dangerous to do journalism in Colombia’

AJ+ talks to investigative journalist Daniel Suárez Pérez about the state of press freedom amid the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running conflict

Versión en español

Being a journalist in Colombia almost always means assuming some serious risks. More than 140 journalists have been assassinated in the country since 1977, according to data by the Colombian press freedom organization FLIP, making it one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists. More than 30 have been attacked or threatened just since the start of 2015.

That violence is a reflection of the larger situation that has gripped the country for decades: Colombia has endured the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere, a civil war between the government, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries that has claimed more than 220,000 lives.

Journalists reporting on the conflict are in the line of fire – literally, in the field, and figuratively, whenever they write an article unfavorable to one side.

Daniel Suárez Pérez, 27, knows this all too well. His investigative reports on the conflict and its impact on civilians has put him on the frontline of battles between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group and the government, sometimes endangering his life. Nowadays Suárez works with Olinguito to develop apps that help fight corruption.

AJ+ spoke with Suárez about press freedom issues in Colombia:
Daniel Suárez Pérez. (Image: Consejo de Redacción)

Q: What challenges do Colombian journalists face in terms of press freedom?

A: Each week at least one journalist is assaulted in Colombia. The players in this are very diverse, they range from illegal players to legal ones. Sometimes it’s mayors who put journalists at risk, sometimes it’s armed groups like the FARC guerrillas who don’t like when journalists report on the attacks they make against the population.

The peace talks that are happening in Havana have definitely reduced these attacks on journalists and freedom of expression. However, it’s still dangerous to do journalism in Colombia, and that’s beyond just those who call themselves journalists. It’s dangerous for any citizen who wants to express an opinion.

The fact is that as journalists we are always at risk if we end up investigating something. We’re in the middle of a conflict and anything related to the conflict involves someone who has perpetrated violence, or an armed group. For example, whenever a journalist investigates corruption — which is one of the big themes that you see almost every day in the media — threats, intimidation and assassinations will follow.

Q: Many Colombian journalists risk being kidnapped or assassinated for reporting on what happens in the country. Have you ever felt the need to self-censor when you’re reporting on sensitive topics for this reason?

A: If one is courageous and wants to show the realities, and wants to exercise this power that we get from journalism…to make visible many things that happen in society, encourage transparency and hold people accountable — preferred over self-censorship, which is what one does to protect oneself, is to say things carefully. There are very courageous journalists in Colombia who want to do this kind of hard work, and what’s really needed here is for public institutions to protect them.

Q: You have covered a number of stories involving groups that are known for committing crimes against journalists for their investigative work. Have you ever worried about possible repercussions from your reporting?

A: Rather than censoring yourself, what you ask yourself is: ‘What will happen after? What am I trying to achieve with this? What guarantees do I have to publish it?’ (You ask) whether it’s worth waiting on, or if it’s something (that if published) quickly could put the sources at risk. If I publish it quickly there may be a risk, but it could also prevent something bad from happening in the community. One has to evaluate many different things.

Q: What do you think will be the challenges for the media if a peace accord is eventually signed?

A: We’ll have to continue to be courageous, to tell stories, to be imaginative and creative, to reach more people and to find how to make people want to learn about the story of the conflict. I think it’s necessary that people know about the conflict. In order to look for a solution we must all find it together.

So, I think one of the challenges of journalists is how to reach people, how to be sensible in investigations, how to get good results from the work that we’re doing, because getting to the process of peace is really about strengthening our democracy.

This post is the last installment in a week-long AJ+ series looking at firsthand accounts of press freedom worldwide. The series is wrapping up, but we still want to hear from you.

What’s the status of press freedom in your country? Do you think there’s room for improvement? Will there ever be a truly free press?

Join the conversation below and/or tweet at @ajplus with the hashtag #PressFreedomMeans to let us know what you think.