The SRFOE condemns the murder of journalists Jaime Vásquez, Julio Zapata and Hilton Eduardo Barrios, and calls on the State to investigate the facts and ensure the protection of journalists.

April 30, 2024

Washington D.C. - The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (SRFOE) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the murder of journalist and social leader Jaime Vásquez, recorded on April 14 in the city of Cúcuta, department of Norte de Santander; of journalist Julio Zapata, recorded on April 22 in the municipality of San Rafael, department of Antioquia; and of journalist Hilton Eduardo Barrios, recorded on April 26 in the municipality of Puerto López, department of Meta. This Office calls on the authorities to investigate the facts with due diligence, considering their profession as a possible motive for the crimes, as well as to clarify the facts and identify and punish all those responsible.

In the case of Jaime Vásquez, according to public information, he was walking through the streets of La Riviera neighborhood, in the city of Cúcuta, when a man on a motorcycle shot him three times with a firearm while he was taking refuge inside a commercial establishment. Vásquez was taken alive to the nearest health center, however, he died due to the seriousness of his injuries. According to public reports, Vásquez was known for denouncing and reporting through his Facebook page on matters of public interest in the city of Cúcuta, related to possible acts of corruption.

As far as this Office was able to learn, Jaime Vásquez had protection measures from the National Protection Unit (UNP). According to the information provided by the State to the Office of the Special Rapporteur, in January 2023, the Committee for Risk Evaluation and Recommendation of Measures (CERREM) decided to adjust Vásquez's protection measures, which included the assignment of a means of communication, an armored vest and a protection person.

However, according to public reports, at the time of the crime the journalist was not wearing a bulletproof vest and was not accompanied by his bodyguard. The UNP, for its part, has indicated that Vásquez "suffered a deadly attack outside his home" and that, although "he had measures in force", these "were in the process of being re-evaluated". Public reports have warned with concern that the revaluation of these measures would have taken about 5 months.

The Rapporteurship welcomes the statements of the President of the Republic and other Colombian authorities, including the Governor's Office, who have strongly condemned the crime. It also appreciates the progress in the investigations of the case by the Attorney General's Office and the National Police, which have led to the capture and detention of the alleged perpetrator.

In relation to the murder of Julio Zapata, according to public information the journalist was attacked with a sharp weapon while he was in his home in the company of another person, located in the municipality of San Rafael, department of Antioquia. Zapata was the founder of the digital media San Rafael Online, in which he published information of public interest, and was also the host of the program El Despertador.

The Special Rapporteur welcomes the pronouncement of the Mayor's Office of San Rafael, which in a statement published on April 23 regretted the murder and convened a Security Council to analyze the crime and other situations of violence in the municipality.

Finally, the Office of the Special Rapporteur recorded the murder of the journalist and former candidate for mayor of Puerto López, Meta department, Hilton Eduardo Barrios. According to public reports, the crime occurred in a commercial establishment in the Menegua neighborhood in Puerto López, where armed men shot at the journalist on several occasions. Barrios was director of the local media Ciudadanías, where he denounced alleged acts of corruption. He was also a recognized leader of the municipality who was part of the Peasant Assembly, where he worked for territorial planning and agrarian reform.

The SRFOE learned that the Colombian authorities have set up a special Criminal Investigation and Police Intelligence team to collect evidence and find the whereabouts of those responsible. The mayor of Puerto López rejected the crime perpetrated against Barrios, as well as the Human Rights Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior, which called for the clarification of the mentioned crimes.

This is the third murder of journalists in the country recorded by the Office of the Special Rapporteur during the month of April, and the fourth so far in the year 2024, after the murder of journalist Mardonio Mejía Mendoza, perpetrated on January 24 in the municipality of San Pedro, in the department of Sucre; that of journalist and social leader Jaime Vásquez, in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander; and that of journalist Julio Zapata, in San Rafael, Antioquia.

In this regard, the Office of the Special Rapporteur reiterates that the murder of journalists is the most extreme form of censorship. As has been pointed out by this Office, "acts of violence committed against journalists and media workers not only seriously violate their right to life, but also aim to radically suppress their right to express themselves freely and generate an effect of self-censorship". It is the duty of States to prevent and investigate these acts, punish the perpetrators and ensure adequate reparation for the victims.

It also recalls that States must provide measures to protect the life and integrity of journalists who are subject to a special risk, which must be evaluated in light of the existing context in the country and may arise "due to factors such as the type of events that journalists cover, the public interest of the information they disseminate or the area they must access to carry out their work, as well as [due to] threats in connection with the dissemination of that information or for reporting or promoting the investigation of violations they suffered or learned of in the exercise of their profession".

It is the responsibility of the state authorities that become aware of the situation of special risk, "to identify or assess whether the person subject to threats and harassment requires protection measures or to refer to the competent authority to do so, as well as to provide the person at risk with timely information on the measures available". States must ensure that the protection measures adopted are effective and adequate.

In view of the foregoing considerations, the Office of the Special Rapporteur urges the Colombian State to investigate the facts considering the journalistic profession as a possible motive for the crimes; to identify and punish all those responsible; and to adopt the necessary measures to improve the protection of journalists in the country. It also calls on the State to strengthen the protection mechanism and review the operation of security schemes and measures to ensure that they are effective and provide due protection to journalists who are at risk.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the hemispheric defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression, considering its fundamental role in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.

No. R082/24

9:46 AM