Colombia stepping on press freedoms, especially among foreign journalists
Correction: This story has been modified to remove sections about Colombian newspapers and their operational practices that the Colombian press association disputed.
It was in June that Freek Huigen, a journalist in Colombia, was faced with a choice: leave the country he’d called home for years or stay illegally.
The Dutch sports reporter has lived in the South American country for six years, and worked on an independent reporter’s visa for three. But when Huigen went to get that visa renewed, he said Colombian immigration authorities told him, “Well, you can't.”
“My first thought was, 'What do I do now?' " he said.
In December, the South American country implemented what it called “simplified” migratory rules. In actuality, it made it nearly impossible for foreign journalists to renew or receive visas that allow them to work in the country.
Now, Huigen is just one of at least 12 foreign journalists who’ve said they were unable to obtain or renew their visas.
Two have been forced to leave the country already, but many more may have been impacted.
Press freedom organizations have slammed the regulation as a “collective censorship” of foreign journalists.
This comes as Colombia gains an international spotlight with a flood of people fleeing violence in Venezuela, an uptick in massacres of human rights activists and a new president wrapped up in years of controversy.
At the same time, journalists covering those issues, especially local reporters, are facing a growing wave of violence themselves.
“Around the world — and certainly in Colombia — the risk tends to be greatest for local reporters,” said Natalie Southwick, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Program Coordinator for Central and South American and the Caribbean.
“There's a lot of value to having some folks around that may be able to get access to certain places that would be prohibitively dangerous for local journalists.”
A web of bureaucracy
The migratory rule implemented by the Colombian government only allows journalists to renew or receive a visa if they had a bachelors degree in journalism.
That poses a problem for reporters like Huigen, who despite years of experience and an intimate knowledge of the country, had a degree in physiotherapy, an issue that attaches to his beat.
“It doesn't make sense that they can impact on my life by just telling me I can't be a journalist in Colombia,” Huigen said, “by telling me 'You can't be here as a journalist simply because you don't have a degree.’”
The statute has affected reporters who do work for some of the world’s largest publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, TIME, The Washington Post, Reuters, National Geographic, Getty Images and others.
Huigen himself works as a sports editor for one of the country’s largest English-language newspapers, The Bogota Post, and does work for Belgium-based publications.
The Post, alongside Colombia Reports, published detailed testimonies of the journalists affected by the rule in September, saying the rule “effectively bans the vast majority of foreign journalists” in Colombia.
In the report, journalists described spending months fruitlessly navigating a web of bureaucracy in which one reporter with a masters degree in journalism was unable to obtain a permit and another had to spend more than $1,000 to simply get a degree verified.
“I may be one of the lucky ones,” wrote one reporter in the investigation. “I did get a degree in journalism. But trying to get a diploma, transcript and degree verified … is still a very onerous process, particularly when you are attempting to do so from a foreign country and it is related to a degree you earned 15 years ago.”
Following the publication, press freedom organizations decried the Colombian government for violating its own constitution and inter-American free-press standards.
“We don't think any state has the right to mandate who and who is not a journalist,” Southwick said.
“We've seen that in some countries where they try to make sure everyone has a specific accreditation or, in this case, demand that people have an undergraduate degree in journalism, which isn't necessarily evidence that you are working or are capable of working as a journalist.”
Role of the foreign journalist
Foreign journalists play a key role in the South American country, drawing international attention to the politics and issues that make up Colombia.
These journalists, many of whom stay years, know the country intimately and can provide a more nuanced perspective than a foreign reporter who might parachute in for a week. At the same time, because they come from another place, those journalists often report stories from different angles than the country’s popular media.
“You, on one hand, come to a country, you get to know the country, you fall in love with that country to a certain degree,” said Emma Newberry, founder of the Bogota Post. “But you also have an outside perspective which is sometimes critical and different from what local media have.”
A dangerous trade
While the country has increasingly gained an international spotlight for the flood of people fleeing violence in Venezuela and a tumultuous political environment, the jobs of the reporters covering those stories are becoming increasingly more dangerous.
Since 1992, 86 journalists have been killed in Colombia, CPJ data shows. Two journalists and one media worker have been killed so far in 2018, according to the data.
The Ecuadorian journalists, Juan Javier Ortega Reyes and Paúl Rivas Bravo, and their driver, Efraín Segarra Abril, were investigating violence along the Colombia-Ecuador border when they were kidnapped by guerrillas.
After an 18-day hostage crisis, the three men working for Ecuador’s El Comercio were executed.
In the years leading up to 2018, Colombia was becoming a safer place for reporters. But the June election of President Ivan Duque, a politician who campaigned against the country’s ongoing peace process, brought with it a jump in violence against reporters.
Journalists, social leaders and opposition politicians have received waves of threats, many sent by the right-wing extremist group, Aguilas Negras, which said they would “exterminate” opposition to Colombia’s new government. Around the same time, two environmental journalists were forced to flee the country after they received months of threats.
Colombia’s Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP), which tracks violations of press freedom in the country, documented 335 violations this year, many happening in rural areas and along the Colombia-Venezuelan border where a large number of stories manifest.
Those numbers, too, are on an increase from previous years.
“I think there's a lot that remains to be done in terms of actually protecting journalists that are facing threats,” Southwick said, “and not waiting until they get killed to go after their murderers.”
A ticking clock
As journalists across the country decried the Colombian immigration authority in early September, FLIP petitioned the government for a meeting to discuss the requirements further.
“The change in the requirements demanded constitutes a violation of the fundamental right to equality, as it places independent journalists in different conditions depending on whether or not they have a university degree in journalism,” FLIP said in a press release.
The Colombian Foreign Ministry responded hours later and announced a meeting with the journalists, saying “Colombia is a country that defends, supports and respects press freedom.”
The Foreign Ministry said they have set a date to discuss the visas in October. The has been no confirmation when or if the issue will be resolved, but Pedro Vaca of FLIP said he’s hopeful and that the Ministry told him “they are open to discussions” about the visas.
But the resolution may have already left gaps in coverage and placed serious constraints on independent foreign journalists in the country.
The December rule, according to Newberry, has both placed a ticking clock on Huigen and one other of her reporters and bolstered a fear that journalists may face a backlash for any critical reporting they do.
“It makes it really hard (to report) because it forces people to end up working on a tourist visa,” Newberry said. “Then that makes it very difficult for them to write critical articles about Colombia because as soon as you’re semi-legal, you’re a lot more nervous about writing critical stories.”
By the numbers:
335 violations of press freedom 2018, 427 victims.
164 threats, 211 victims
26 judicial harassments, 33 victims
25 harassments, 28 victims
13 aggressions, 25 victims
6 espionages or invasions, 6 victims
3 murders, 3 victims
2 kidnappings, 4 victims