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In Colombia, Danger Is Part of Journalists' Job Description

When television news presenter Mauricio Gomez started receiving death threats in 1987, he traveled to and from work hidden in the trunk of a car.

Then, after he narrowly escaped two kidnapping attempts in January 1988, the prominent critic of Colombia's most powerful drug cartel left the country. Unfortunately, neither Atlanta nor Paris proved far enough away to stop the persecution - up until a year ago, Mr. Gomez continued to receive threats from his enemies.

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"The very first one read 'Congratulations, you too will be eliminated,' " says Gomez, now retired from journalism who is currently on a little-advertised visit to Colombia.

Colombia has never been a safe place for journalists. During the war waged against the state in the late 1980s by slain Medelln cartel chief Pablo Escobar, newspapers were bombed and hundreds of journalists like Gomez were threatened, kidnapped, and killed.

Despite a drop in the number of recorded deaths, the press now has more enemies than ever. According to the Foundation for the Freedom of the Press, a national organization that defends the rights of journalists, 42 journalists have been killed in the past 10 years, compared with 85 in the five years before that. But this is still 1 in 3 of those killed in Latin America.

"The situation now is worse. There may be less deaths ... but I don't think it's easy to be a journalist in Colombia," says Gomez.

"Journalists ... are caught between various fires": the military, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers says Javier Dario Restrepo, head of the foundation.

So far this year, there have been five cases of journalists being killed, one of them the most high-profile murder in a decade. Gerardo Bedoya, an anticartel columnist at Cali's El Pais, was gunned down in March as he walked to his car.

And violence in general, including violence against journalists, is expected to grow.

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"The situation in Colombia will get worse because the war here is growing and we're approaching an election period," says Luis Caon, managing editor of Cali-based daily El Pais.

Meanwhile, the government provides little protection at best, active opposition at worst. Ignacio Gomez, head of the investigative reporting branch of national daily El Tiempo, notes that the government has limited powers to protect the press. "The Colombian government doesn't control large areas of the country," he says. "The government doesn't even control its own military."

And doubt has been cast over President Ernesto Samper's commitment to the freedom of the press following the approval of a new television law, which will give the government control over the allocation of air-time to news channels, depending upon the "objectivity" of their reporting.

"The government ... tries to silence certain information," says Mr. Restrepo.

But despite the dangers and persecution, there are enough journalists who value democracy and freedom of speech to continue to print the truth, says Mr. Caon. "It's not because I'm macho," he says, "but because I love my country. And it hurts to see how fragile it is sometimes."

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