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Colombia Needs Reprieve For Terrorized Press

Colombian journalists have long been in a no-win situation. If they call for peace or for greater public participation in elections, they risk being targeted by guerrillas or paramilitary death squads. If they report on official corruption, they become targets of powerful political figures or their underworld partners.

In the 1980s, drug traffickers were the most violent enemies of the Colombian press. Today, all parties have adopted the "plata o plomo" (silver or lead) motto of the cartels: Journalists who refuse a bribe know they may be shot.

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Eleven journalists have been killed in Colombia since outgoing president Ernesto Samper took office in 1994; dozens of others have been attacked, threatened, or kidnapped. Fabio Castillo, who until recently worked for the Bogot daily El Espectador, says it's long been routine to include the word "another" in the headline announcing a journalist's murder.

The press is cautiously hoping that things will change under the new president Andrs Pastrana Arango, who took over from Mr. Samper last week. Although violence continues unabated, Mr. Pastrana had recorded some promising results even while still president-elect: both the guerrillas and paramilitaries said they're ready to talk peace with him. Journalists hope Pastrana can create a climate in which the press can function without fear of reprisal.

But that hope is tempered by the press's experience with Samper, whom they widely supported when he came to power in 1994. Journalists believed he would curtail the drug-related violence to which they had so often fallen victim. But after the press reported allegations that Samper had received campaign donations from the Cali cartel, relations between the media and the president soured. While Samper has acknowledged his campaign received money from drug traffickers, he claims he was their "victim."

Samper took several steps that significantly limited press freedom. When cassettes emerged allegedly proving the narco-donations to his campaign, he halted their broadcast with a decree prohibiting the media from broadcasting or publishing declarations of guerrillas, drug traffickers, or criminals.

In 1995, a bill was passed that penalized reporting on ongoing criminal investigations of government officials. (The attorney general later declared the bill unconstitutional.) And in 1996, a law was passed by the popularly elected Congress under which television stations could lose their broadcasting license if their programming failed to be objective, impartial, or balanced.

In August 1997, during a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association in Guatemala, Samper publicly accused the press of thriving on the violence it was reporting. That same month, two of his Cabinet ministers were forced to resign after a Bogot magazine published a transcript of their cellular phone conversation in which they discussed Samper's plans to award radio frequencies to his friends and supporters.

Historically, the Colombian press has been vibrant and aggressive, despite the fact that Colombia has long been the most dangerous country in the hemisphere for journalists. But Samper's hostile stance rapidly undermined the press, leading to self-censorship among those not silenced outright.

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President Pastrana is himself a former journalist. He is surely aware of the role that a robust press can play in bringing dialogue and healing to a society so deeply divided. Having lost in the 1994 election, he played a crucial role in uncovering the narco-donations to Samper's campaign.

If Pastrana hopes to bring peace to Colombia, he must ensure that Colombians are able to turn to a press that dares to fully inform its public. His definition of peace must include one of the most essential components of a just society: press freedom.

* Marylene Smeets, a lawyer specializing in human rights in Latin America, is the research associate for the Americas Program of the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York.

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