Freedom of Expression

Press Release R70/16

Office of the Special Rapporteur Expresses Concern over the Situation of Three Journalists Reported Missing in Colombia

May 25, 2016

Washington, D.C. – The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern over the situation of three journalists reported missing in the town of Filogringo, Colombia, located 700 km north of Bogotá and just 50 km from the Venezuelan border. The Office of the Special Rapporteur calls upon Colombian authorities to make use of all available instruments to act promptly and appropriately, find the missing reporters, and take the respective protection measures.

According to the information available, the first journalist to disappear was Salud Hernández-Mora, a columnist for the Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo and correspondent for El Mundo of Madrid, who had gone to the area as part of a reporting assignment. Filogringo is a town in the department of Norte de Santander that has historically been plagued by unrest, with the presence of guerrillas and paramilitary forces. It has remote, mountainous terrain, and limited communications. Hernández-Mora was reported missing on Saturday, May 21, according to the press.

In view of the situation, reporters from the television channels RCN and Caracol TV and from the EFE press agency traveled to the area on Monday, May 23 to cover the incident and were detained, allegedly by guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN). Journalist Diego Velosa, of Caracol TV, his cameraman, and the EFE reporter were released the same day, while a journalist and a cameramen from RCN—Diego D’Pablos and Carlos Melo—remain missing. "After we had already started working, we were approached by ELN guerrillas who detained us for three hours, and after three hours of interrogation they confiscated all of our equipment: cameras, computers—everything we had with us," stated Velosa on Tuesday the 24th. He added that they were forced to leave the area and that their equipment was not returned to them.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ordered State security forces to double down on their efforts to locate the three journalists. "I have instructed the commander of the Army and the director of the Police to report to the area in order to provide support to all of the search operations for Salud Hernández and the two other reporters who remain missing," said the President on Tuesday, the 24th.

The Office of the Governor of Norte de Santander offered a reward of 100 million Colombian pesos (about US $32,680) to anyone who provides information leading to the location of the three reporters.

The State of Colombia informed the Office of the Special Rapporteur that the Public Forces of Colombia [Fuerza Pública de Colombia] has been working since Sunday May 22nd to locate Hernández-Mora and that President Santos established, as a priority, the deployment of all necessary efforts to locate the three journalists. The State said that a police team specialized in kidnappings was transferred to the area where she was last seen and was gathering information and evidence. At the same time, the Armed Forces and the National Police activated search protocols with intelligence units and reinforcements in the area. The Office of the Attorney General is also investigating the case.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur acknowledges the response of the State, which took urgent measures to determine the whereabouts of the journalists. In the meantime, Colombian media outlets have published different versions of the events concerning the three journalists and their status, not ruling out the possibility that they may be being held by armed groups. 

Journalists serve a fundamental role in situations of armed conflict, as it is journalists who are risking their lives to bring the public an independent and professional view of what is really happening in areas of conflict. Consequently, the State must provide them with the greatest protection possible in order for them to be able to exercise their right to freedom of expression in a way that satisfies society’s right to be adequately informed.

According to the joint statement on freedom of expression and responses to conflict situations, released in 2015 by the rapporteurs for freedom of expression of United Nations, Europe, Africa and the Americas, "States have an obligation to provide protection to journalists and others exercising their right to freedom of expression who are at a high risk of being attacked" in conflict situations.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the IACHR to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system.