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FLIP condemns massive surveillance, profiling of local and international journalists by Colombian army (Demo)

This article was originally published at on 1 May 2020.

In response to an article published by Semana magazine, titled ‘Las carpetas secretas’ (‘The Secret Files’), and other information we have gleaned, the Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP) states the following:

  1. We emphatically condemn the ongoing and intensifying profiling and surveillance of journalists by state intelligence agencies in Colombia. These practices—which are characteristic of authoritarian regimes—contravene the government’s freedom of expression obligations and raise questions about society’s right to information and guarantees for the work of journalists.
  2. On this particular occasion, profiling and surveillance of journalists by Colombian military intelligence agencies was carried out on a massive scale, and includes some cases of reckless descriptions of journalists as operating outside the law based on interference and evaluations of articles they have written.  This represents a dangerous characterisation originating from military evaluation and classification of information that is relevant in a democratic environment, placing it within a wartime context. The profiles created contain both publicly-available and private information, including information about the individual’s families. No prior authorisation was obtained and, as such, the collection and analysis of sensitive portions of the information violates the purpose and principals of the Intelligence Law.
  3. FLIP knows of at least 30 journalists who have been profiled in this manner. To date, information has been collected on María Alejandra Villamizar (Caracol Radio), Juan Forero (The Wall Street Journal), Daniel Coronell (Univisión), Federico Ríos (freelance for The New York Times), Óscar Parra (Rutas del Conflicto), Stephen Ferry (independent), Ginna Morelo (La Liga Contra el Silencio), Yolanda Ruiz (RCN Radio), Ignacio Gómez (Noticias UNO), Lindsay Addario (independent), Nicholas Casey (The New York Times), Jhon Otis (Committee to Protect Journalists and NPR) and a journalist and producer for Blu Radio. The Rutas del Conflicto (Conflict Routes) and La Liga Contra el Silencio (League Against Silence) media outlets have also been profiled.
  4. Defence Minister Holmes Trujillo, the Office of the Attorney General and the current military leadership have all been aware of these actions since at least January 2020. The measures set out by the Defence Ministry to deal with the issue, however, were announced in a statement on social media just a few hours before Semana published its article. (added the following sentence to try to cover off what the Twitter post below says – hope it’s okay): In its statement, the Defence Ministry outlined investigative and disciplinary actions there were being undertaken to deal with activities within the military’s ranks that could contravene the Intelligence Law, in addition to infringing on citizens’ rights and harming the military’s image. Disciplinary actions included mention of 11 officers who would be removed from their posts.

The Supreme Court has also had information and evidence about the surveillance since December 2019, when court officials carried out a search at a military facility (added the last bit because it was missing in the Spanish – see note in Spanish version), but there have been no advances in the investigation. As such, FLIP, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) are requesting a meeting with Colombia’s president. A meeting with the president was originally scheduled for 16 March, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 health emergency.

  1. Faced with the impossibility of knowing exactly how many journalists have been affected by these actions and noting that more than three months have passed during which the Colombian mechanisms for protecting the press have been inoperational, on 4 March 2020 FLIP and CPJ filed a request for precautionary measures with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR is currently evaluating the request for international protection. With this statement, FLIP is confirming the urgent need for the IACHR to activate the inter-American system’s precautionary protective measures for the journalists and media outlets that have been subjected to military intelligence profiling.
  2. The profiling of journalists by the military represents an action that violates the objectives of intelligence and counter-intelligence operations, overstepping boundaries and threatening democracy and public debate. The statement released by the Defence Ministry is insufficient as it characterises the activities as “irregularities”, when in reality they constitute a serious violation of press freedom and human rights in general. There have been no answers regarding the objectives served by processing and analysing the information used to develop the profiles. There is no apparent relationship with the objectives and boundaries of intelligence work contained in Article 4 of the Intelligence Law and in the Constitutional Court’s 2012 review and ruling on the law.
  3. FLIP views the Defence Ministry’s statement as insufficient and as such calls on the national government, as the highest civilian and military authority, to publicly provide explanations that, at minimum, cover the following information: i) the origin of the profiling and surveillance activities, ii) the purpose of the activities, iii) the military and political agencies that had access to the information collected, iv) the President’s position regarding the activities and associated concerns, v) the specific findings that resulted in the removal of 11 officers from their posts, and vi) actions that will be taken to ensure that these security force activities come to an end.
  4. FLIP calls on the National Army to stop profiling local and international journalists and ensure that military personnel are aware that evaluation of journalistic content is the exclusive jurisdiction of the judiciary, to be conducted within a public and transparent framework.

The Defence Ministry, which must be guided by human rights standards, should know that treating journalists as intelligence targets is in and of itself a serious violation of the right to press freedom and affects the conditions within which society may receive information on topics of public interest.

  1. We, at FLIP, will continue monitoring this situation, informing journalists who we can verify have been subjected to profiling.
  2. FLIP will also activate judicial and disciplinary control mechanisms and will call on the Colombian government to implement a monitoring program of its own. In addition, we will insist on the need for international observation and protection—particularly from the IACHR and diplomatic corps of the countries of origin of the international journalists who have been profiled—in order to re-establish democratic guarantees for press freedom in Colombia.

What is profiling?

The information collected by the military includes contact lists of the journalists profiled, as well as notes on race, religion, family members, friends, sources and home addresses, among others. The information also includes comments or “conclusions” referring to inferences made by military analysts regarding journalists’ political orientations. Geo-referencing information is included in some cases, detailing the locations visited by the journalists over several months. In addition, journalists’ social media interactions have been documented, and comments such as the following may be viewed: “Juan Forero: Is friends with León Valencia and supports the Green party. FARC supporter.” Comments such as these represent directed, stigmatising and reckless inferences that put the safety of journalists at risk.

  • In one of the cases, the profiling of the journalist began as a result of disparaging comments made by a public official, who said that the journalist had received money from an armed group in order to publish false information, when in reality the journalistic work in question was legitimate and of high public interest.
  • Some of the profiling cases included reconstruction of journalists’ contacts network, in addition to profiling of the contacts. From this it can be inferred that the military has information on sources that have provided information to journalists, thus violating the right of journalists to protect their sources and the obligation of the government to guarantee that right.
  • Various media outlets and journalists were included by the military in a Twitter list created on the National Army’s official account, titled “Opposition”. The list was deleted after public reports were published on 11 March. (hmmmm, this date wasn’t been mentioned previously – wonder if it’s a mistake. The way it was written in the Spanish infers a bit that it is something that may have already been mentioned. In the English I made it look less like something that had been mentioned previously.).
  • The purpose of the profiling is not yet known, but the military’s analysis and questioning of the work of journalists gives serious cause for concern, particularly the inference that media personnel have presumed links with groups operating outside the law. Stigmatisation by officials, in which they, without proof, link journalists to illegal actions or organisations, is very dangerous. These inferences could be understood as a signal for members of the security forces, or even third parties that know of the profiling, to perpetrate attacks on the press.

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