In times of war, Pentagon reserves right to treat journalists like spies

This piece was originally posted by the Committee to Protect Journalists on CPJ’s blog here.

In times of war, Pentagon reserves right to treat journalists like spies

by Frank Smyth, July 21, 2015

A press briefing at the Pentagon in April. Worrying guidelines on how the military can categorize the press during conflict are contained in the Defense Department's Law of War Manual. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

A press briefing at the Pentagon in April. Worrying guidelines on how the military can categorize the press during conflict are contained in the Defense Department’s Law of War Manual. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

The Pentagon has produced its first Department of Defense-wide Law of WarManual and the results are not encouraging for journalists who, the documents state, may be treated as “unprivileged belligerents.” But the manual’s justification for categorizing journalists this way is not based on any specific case, law or treaty. Instead, the relevant passages have footnotes referring to either other parts of the document or matters not germane to this legal assertion. And the language used to attempt to justify this categorization is weak at best.

This broad and poorly defined category gives U.S. military commanders across all services the purported right to at least detain journalists without charge, and without any apparent need to show evidence or bring a suspect to trial. The Obama administration’s Defense Department appears to have taken the ill-defined practices begun under the Bush administration during the War on Terror and codified them to formally govern the way U.S. military forces treat journalists covering conflicts.

The manual’s impact overseas, especially in the short run, may be even worse. The language used to justify treating journalists as “unprivileged belligerents” comes at a time when international law for conflict is being flouted by armed groups–including government, militia, and insurgent forces–from Ukraine and Iraq to Nigeria and the Congo–and during a time in which CPJ has documented record numbers of journalists being imprisoned and killed. At a time when international leadership on human rights and press freedom is most needed, the Pentagon has produced a self-serving document that is unfortunately helping to lower the bar.

So far the manual has received little press, but both The Washington Times andRussia Today covered it. The Moscow-funded global news outlet Russia Todayquoted Chris Chambers, a Georgetown University undergraduate communications professor, saying that the manual gives U.S. military forces “license to attack” journalists.

At 1,180 pages long and with 6,196 footnotes, the manual includes vague and contradictory language about when and how the category of “unprivileged belligerents” might be applied to journalists. It ignores the most relevant cases where the U.S. military detained war correspondents and accused them of being–using the term coined by Pentagon officials in the 2000s–“unlawful combatants,” without producing evidence or bringing even one accused journalist to trial. The manual mentions international human rights treaties and declarations, but ignores the most important one, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which deals most clearly with the right to free expression and the press.

The Law of War manual is the Defense Department’s most ambitious endeavor of its kind to date. Yet its authority already seems in doubt. The last paragraph in the preface written by lead author and top Pentagon lawyer, Stephen W. Preston, is a disclaimer stating that, while the manual represents the views of the Defense Department, it does not necessarily represent the view of the government. Weeks after the document was released, Preston, who previously served as general counsel to the CIA, resigned quietly without any public notification. He could not be located for comment.

The manual devotes attention to “classes of persons” who “do not fit neatly within the dichotomy” between combatants and civilians, and replaces the term “unlawful combatants,” which U.S. officials used to refer to terrorist suspects held under extra-legal circumstances in the wake of September 11, 2001 attacks, with “unprivileged belligerent.”

“Unprivileged” means the suspect is not entitled to the rights afforded to prisoners of war under international law and can instead be held as a criminal suspect in a category that includes suspected spies, saboteurs, and guerrillas.

Prisoners of war are protected internationally with rights that include being treated humanely, having their status as prisoners reported to a neutral body such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and being held with the expectation of release once hostilities end. “Unprivileged belligerents,” however, like “spies, saboteurs and other persons engaging in similar acts behind enemy lines,” according to the Law of War Manual, may be subject to domestic laws. The domestic penalties for such suspects can include, for instance, the death penalty for those found guilty of spying.

“In general, journalists are civilians. However, journalists may be members of the armed forces, persons authorized to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents,” reads the manual. While the document notes in other parts that journalists can work independently, in this section it fails to explain under what circumstances, or for what kinds of activities the category “unprivileged belligerents” could be applied to journalists.

A Pentagon spokesman offered a few examples. “The fact that a person is a journalist does not prevent that person from becoming an unprivileged belligerent,” U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Sowers, of the Pentagon’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, told The Washington Times. Sowers pointed to the al-Qaeda publication Inspire, saying that propagandists for terrorist groups could be categorized as unprivileged belligerents. So could enemy spies who use journalism as a cover, he added.

But the language in the Pentagon manual seems to at least qualify one of the spokesman’s claims. In footnote 241, which refers to section 2.24.1 on independent journalists, the manual cites a U.N. report to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. “Whether the media constitutes a legitimate target group is a debatable issue. If the media is used to incite crimes, as in Rwanda, then it is a legitimate target. If it is merely disseminating propaganda to generate support for the war effort, it is not a legitimate target,” it states.

The manual does not create new laws, Sowers told CPJ. Instead, it “provides a description” of existing laws-of-war rules for “informational purposes; it is not an authorization for any person to take any particular action related to journalists or anyone else.”

The U.S. military has taken action against journalists before. Bilal Hussein, whose photo of insurgents firing on U.S. soldiers in Fallujah in 2004 helped earn Associated Press photographers, including Hussein, the Pulitzer Prize, was detained by Marines in 2006 and held for two years. The U.S. military never provided evidence or an explanation for the detention of the AP photographer, who was presented with CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2008.

Sami al-Haj, an Al-Jazeera cameraman, was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border while covering a U.S.-led offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. military forces accused the Sudanese cameraman of being a financial courier for armed groups and assisting al-Qaeda and extremist figures, but never provided evidence to support the claims,CPJ found in its 2006 report “Sami al-Haj: The Enemy?” Al-Haj, who is now is head of the human rights and public liberties department at Al-Jazeera, was held for six years at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Prior to releasing him, U.S. military officials tried to compel al-Haj to agree to spy on Al-Jazeera as a condition of his release, his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, told CPJ and media outlets.

One section of the Law of War Manual deals with “Mixed Cases” made up of “(1) certain personnel engaged in humanitarian duties; (2) certain authorized supporters of armed forces; and (3) unprivileged belligerents.” But journalists are not among the examples listed in this category, Sowers told CPJ, and the section that does deal with journalists treats them as “a factual category rather than a legal case.”

Factually speaking, the manual acknowledges “independent journalists” are “regarded as civilians.” But it also rightfully notes limits and cases that could lead a journalist to lose their legal status as a member of the press. For instance, “journalism does not constitute taking a direct part in hostilities such that such a person would be deprived of protection from being made the object of attack.” The manual adds: “In some cases, the relaying of information (such as providing information of immediate use in combat operations) could constitute taking direct part in hostilities.”

U.S. military authorities made similar, unsubstantiated claims about AP’s Hussein and Al-Jazeera’s al-Haj, whose cases the manual ignores. Instead the manual offers its own perspective on how journalists covering conflict should operate.

“Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying. A journalist who acts as a spy may be subject to security measures and punished if captured,” it states. “To avoid being mistaken for spies, journalists should act openly and with the permission of relevant authorities. Presenting identification documents, such as the identification card issued to authorized war correspondents or other appropriate identification, may help journalists avoid being mistaken as spies.”

As any conflict reporter knows, the idea of finding relevant authorities and seeking permission to report on a battlefield would be as unlikely as it would be unwise. Who constitutes relevant authorities is often impossible to determine in shifting battle lines. Moreover, the manual’s language seems to weaken the point of other passages that affirm the right of independent reporters to be on the battlefield.

Finally, the language in paragraph 4.24.5 “Security Precautions and Journalists” simply contradicts the post-World War II norm of a free press. “States may need to censor journalists’ work or take other security measures so that journalists do not reveal sensitive information to the enemy. Under the law of war, there is no special right for journalists to enter a State’s territory without its consent or to access areas of military operations without the consent of the State conducting those operations,” it says.

To delay journalists who are embedded with the military from filing information that could be of use to an enemy for a reasonable period of time is one thing. But to flatly ban journalists from conflict areas, or to restrict or censor them from filing allegedly sensitive information, which the manual fails to specify or explain, would be a violation of international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under Article 19, the declaration affirms not only the right to free expression, but the right to “receive and impart information through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The manual ignores it, even though the declaration was conceived and sponsored by the U.S.

The manual addresses other human rights treaties and documents, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, noting that tension can indeed arise between them and the laws of war. But the manual continues to state that the rules of war trump human rights treaties on the battlefield. “These apparent conflicts may be resolved by the principle that the law of war is the lex specialis during situations of armed conflict, and, as such, is the controlling body of law with regard to the conduct of hostilities and the protection of war victims.”

Authors involved in some of the manual’s earlier drafts argued in The Weekly Standard that prior drafts were too deferential to human rights concerns due to the influence of Obama administration State Department political appointees and human rights activists on the National Security Council. The manual goes on to note that “human rights treaties would clearly be controlling with respect to matters that are within their scope of application and that are not addressed by the laws of war,” using language suggesting that a compromise may have been reached to try to find balance.

The manual states in its preface that it has built on antecedent manuals by U.S. military services, the most important of which was a U.S. Army manual on The Law of Land Warfare published in 1956. Military legal experts from the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia also had input, as did unspecified “distinguished scholars.”

The manual ignores many other scholars. While it includes 21 citations, for instance, to a 1923 Commission of Jurists to Consider and Report Upon the Revision of the Rules of Warfare, the manual arguably ignores more relevant documents, including a 2009 International Commission of Jurists report on the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights (to which I testified on behalf of CPJ about the U.S. treatment of journalists).

By giving approval for the military to detain journalists on vague national security grounds, the manual is sending a disturbing message to dictatorships and democracies alike. The same accusations of threats to national security are routinely used to put journalists behind bars in nations including China, Ethiopia, and Russia to name just a few.

The message the manual sends to U.S. forces may have serious repercussions for press freedom and conflict journalists for years to come. By simply declaring a journalist an “unprivileged belligerent,” military commanders may now well claim the right to be able hold journalists for long periods outside the normal laws of war.

UPDATE: The twenty-fourth paragraph of this blog has been updated to reflect that the comments made in The Weekly Standard were related to early drafts of the manual.

Colombia Briefing: Bad Press

The original story ran here on the Committee to Protect Journalists website

This Colombian warlord cultivates journalists. He also murders them. For Carlos Castaño, it’s all about image.

Bogotá — On May 3, 2001, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño to its annual list of the ten worst enemies of the press. Six weeks later, a reporter from the Paris daily Le Monde caught up with Castaño in northern Colombia and asked how he felt about the distinction.

“I would like to assure you that I have always respected the freedom and subjectivity of the press,” said the leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Colombia’s leading right-wing paramilitary organization. “But I have never accepted that journalism can become an arm at the service of one of the actors of the conflict. Over the course of its existence the AUC has executed two local journalists who were in fact guerrillas.” He no longer remembered their names.

Since 1999, in fact, forces under Castaño’s command have been linked to the murders of at least four journalists, the abduction and rape of one reporter, and threats against many others, according to CPJ research. “Against the violent backdrop of Colombia’s escalating civil war, in which all sides have targeted journalists, Carlos Castaño stands out as a ruthless enemy of the press,” CPJ’s citation noted.

This self-confessed murderer of journalists is now turning to the local press in an effort to rehabilitate his image in Colombia. To that end, Castaño has launched a uniquely Colombian public relations campaign, seemingly modeled after tactics employed by legendary drug lord Pablo Escobar. Not unlike Escobar, Castaño’s strategy combines a charm offensive with forthright acknowledgements of the AUC’s use of terror.

While Escobar attacked journalists who favored his extradition to the United States to face drug trafficking charges, Castaño attacks any journalist whom he suspects of cooperating or even sympathizing with Colombia’s left-wing rebels. This year, Castaño admitted that he had murdered journalists and tried to bomb a newspaper for its alleged communist sympathies. He has been implicated in many other attacks on the press in recent years.

In November 2000, Castaño granted an exclusive interview to the Bogotá weekly Semana. The reporter asked whether Castaño thought he deserved to be compared to the late Escobar. “There is no way you can compare me with a monster like that,” replied Castaño. “While he sought to destroy the country, I intend to save it.”

Old war

Eleven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War remains hot in Colombia. The U.S.-backed Colombian military has been fighting against various Marxist guerrilla organizations (see sidebar) for nearly forty years. The army frequently collaborates with private paramilitary groups, including the AUC, which the Colombian government has outlawed. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that half of the army’s 18 brigades were sharing intelligence and other resources with rightist paramilitary groups, most of them under Castaño’s command.

Since the 1980s, both right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas have increasingly been supported by profits from Colombia’s burgeoning trade in illegal drugs.

Carlos Castaño is Colombia’s top paramilitary leader as well as the country’s leading fugitive. He is currently wanted on multiple murder, kidnapping, and arms trafficking charges dating back to 1988. He is also “a major drug trafficker,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Last April, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Anne W. Patterson told the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador that if Castaño is involved in drug trafficking, “and we think he is,” the United States might one day seek to prosecute him in the United States.

Childhood memories

In 1981, when Carlos Castaño was 15 years old, his father was kidnapped and murdered by leftist guerrillas. At 23, he allegedly participated in a series of massacres of banana pickers in northwestern Colombia. Also known as “Monoleche” (Milkwhite) because of his fair complexion, Carlos allegedly killed at the side of his brother Fidel, and both brothers joined Colombia’s first national paramilitary organization, “Death to Kidnappers” (MAS).

According to DEA documents, MAS was founded in 1981 by Escobar’s Medellín cartel. But the Castaño brothers and Escobar later fell out. Fidel Castaño became chief of operations for a paramilitary strike force called “Los Pepes” (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). Following Fidel’s mysterious 1994 disappearance in northern Colombia, Carlos emerged as Colombia’s leading anti-communist militant.

Three years later, Carlos Castaño unified a number of regional rightist groups to form a national paramilitary organization called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In 1997, Castaño admits, he ordered the massacre of 49 peasants in rural Mapiripán, eastern Colombia. Since then, Castaño and his allies have committed about 80 percent of Colombia’s human rights abuses, according to Human Rights Watch. The Colombian Defense Ministry reports that rightist paramilitaries carried out three-fourths of the country’s massacres last year.

“Guerrillas, whether in uniform or civilian clothes, remain a legitimate military objective,” Castaño said on camera on March 1, 2000, when he showed his face to Colombians and others for the first time. “I know this violates international humanitarian law.”

On May 30 of this year, Castaño issued a cryptic online communiqué announcing his resignation as military commander of the outlawed AUC. Days later, he announced that he was forming a nonviolent political organization, linked to the AUC, that would seek legal recognition in Colombia (none was granted). And he continued to grant interviews.

AUC meets the press

Journalists have figured prominently among Castaño’s victims. In January 1999, for example, Castaño repeatedly threatened Alfredo Molano Bravo of the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador after Molano wrote a story about anti-communist paramilitary groups and their ties to Colombian drug traffickers.

In June 1999, AUC members threatened Carlos Pulgarín, a reporter for Bogotá’s largest daily, El Tiempo, after Pulgarín wrote an article about paramilitary assassinations of indigenous activists. Pulgarín fled to Peru, where his movements were apparently monitored; he later received telephone threats in Lima.

On September 16, 1999, two assassins on a motorcycle shot and killed Guzmán Quintero Torres, editor of the northern Colombian daily El Pilón. Quintero was investigating several AUC-linked murders at the time, including the 1998 slaying of television journalist Amparo Leonor Jiménez Pallares, who was killed after she reported that local paramilitary forces had murdered peasants.

On September 9, 2000, AUC paramilitaries abducted and killed a rural community leader named Carlos José Restrepo Rocha, who ran two small regional publications. AUC fliers were left next to Restrepo Rocha’s bullet-ridden corpse, but the motive for this particular murder remains unclear. Later that year, AUC members threatened Eduardo Luque Díaz, of the daily La Nación, at his office and home, demanding that he reveal the whereabouts of a family he had mentioned in a story.

On April 27 of this year, Flavio Bedoya, a southwesternColombia correspondent for the Communist Party weekly La Voz, was murdered. Colleagues believed the murder was linked to a series of highly critical reports that Bedoya had published in La Voz since the beginning of April about collusion between the security forces and outlawed right-wing paramilitary gangs in southern Nariño Department.

One month after Bedoya’s death, the AUC tried unsuccessfully to bomb the Bogotá offices of La Voz. Castaño took responsibility for the incident a few days later.

On October 31, 2000, rural community radio station director Juan Camilo Restrepo Guerra was summoned to a meeting by rightist paramilitaries who were apparently incensed by his sharp criticisms of the local administration. Restrepo Guerra’s brother drove him on a motorcycle to the rendezvous site. The paramilitaries shot Restrepo Guerra dead in front of his brother, who has since declined to testify and has gone into hiding.

Journalists who choose to remain in Colombia despite Castaño’s intimidation privately admit that they censor their own reports to protect themselves and their families. “Of course I censor myself,” said one threatened journalist who elected to stay. “You have to tell the story, but there are some things I can’t include.”

Carrot and stick

Although journalists all over Colombia have been threatened and attacked for daring to criticize the AUC, Castaño has also used the press to launch a PR offensive. The formerly reclusive leader has “gained public visibility in the national and international media with disconcerting ease,” according to a March 2001 report by the United Nations human rights office in Colombia.

“Carlos Castaño, Colombia’s fugitive paramilitary leader, unleashed a national stir when he stepped from the shadows and submitted to a ninety-minute, one-on-one interview, televised on March 1 [2000],” wrote then-U.S. Ambassador Curtis W. Kamman in a recently declassified U.S. embassy cable. “The 35-year-old Castaño appeared intelligent, articulate, well-poised, and, above all, very charismatic.”

Nearly one in five Colombian adults watched at least half the program, about the same percentage that supports Castaño, according to opinion polls. Since that first television appearance, Castaño has made himself freely available to both domestic and foreign reporters.

The Garzón murder

While Castaño has been linked to numerous attacks on the press, he currently faces just one criminal charge over an attack on a journalist. The charge, aggravated homicide, relates to the 1999 murder of Colombian television host Jaime Garzón. According to the official charge sheet, Castaño ordered Garzón’s murder because of the journalist’s role in negotiating the release of hostages held by leftist guerrillas.

The 39-year-old Garzón was a morning news host for the Caracol network and a regular columnist for the weekly magazine Cambio. But Garzón was best known for his work as a television comedian who used humor to criticize all factions in the civil conflict. He specialized in uncannily accurate impersonations of Colombian officials and other notables and was so popular across Colombia that in 1997, then-presidential candidate Andrés Pastrana Arango appeared live with other candidates on his TV show.

Garzón regularly traded on his stature as a well-respected broadcaster to negotiate for the release of victims of guerrilla kidnappings. He also served on an independent commission that mediated between the government and the leftist guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Two points emerge clearly from the Garzón case. First, some of Colombia’s most dangerous criminals work for Carlos Castaño; and second, not even famous and well-connected journalists are safe from him.

On August 10, 1999, Garzón heard that Castaño was planning to kill him. The news was conveyed by a Colombian senator named Piedad Córdoba, who chaired the Senate’s human rights committee at the time. In late 1998, Castaño’s men kidnapped Córdoba and held her for nine months. During that time, Castaño told Córdoba that Garzón was on his list of targets. Castaño read her excerpts from what he said were transcripts of Garzón’s private telephone conversations. He claimed that the transcripts proved Garzón was really a guerrilla.

After Córdoba was released in June 1999, she told Garzón that Castaño was planning to eliminate him. During the second week of August, Garzón learned that Castaño had ordered him killed by the end of that week. On August 10, desperate to get in touch with Castaño, Garzón visited La Modelo prison, a maximum-security installation in Bogotá where several important AUC figures are incarcerated.

According to the charge sheet, Garzón met with Ángel Custodio Gaitán Mahecha, also known as “The Baker,” and with Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, also known as “Popeye.” Velásquez was an early 1990s Escobar loyalist who later transferred his allegiance to the AUC. Both were well-connected members of the Colombian underworld.

Gaitán used his cell phone to call Castaño. He handed the phone to Garzón, who pleaded with Castaño to spare his life. Castaño called Garzón a son of a bitch who supported the guerrillas and added that he was a coward who didn’t have the guts to meet him face to face. Before hanging up, the two men arranged to meet the following Saturday, August 14.

On August 13, a motorcycle-riding gunman shot Garzón dead at a traffic light just four blocks from his office. A few hours later, Castaño himself called Garzón’s radio show and denied responsibility on the air. Velásquez and Gaitán also claim they had nothing to do with Garzón’s death.

The gunman who shot Garzón allegedly belonged to a criminal band known as La Terraza. In the past, La Terraza carried out attacks for the late Pablo Escobar. However, Castaño admits he has hired La Terraza to carry out a number of crimes in recent years, including kidnappings. The official government charge sheet accuses him of hiring La Terraza to kill Garzón.

On August 3, 2000, three months after Castaño was formally charged with Garzón’s murder, he invited seven La Terraza leaders to a meeting in northern Colombia. Authorities later discovered all seven of their corpses near a local road. Meanwhile, Castaño issued a communiqué saying that the AUC had executed them for giving leaders like him a bad name.

Three months later, several young men who claimed to be La Terraza members surfaced in Medellín. Wearing masks, they taped a television interview in which they claimed to have committed many kidnappings and murders on behalf of the AUC, including the Garzón assassination. During the interview, they claimed that Castaño was planning to kill them and their families with the help of local police and military forces. Castaño did not deny the accusation. In March 2001, he told El Tiempo that only one or two members of the band were still alive.

War on El Espectador

On May 24, 2000, a suspected AUC militant tried to abduct Ignacio Gómez, an investigative reporter with El Espectador, in downtown Bogotá. The man who failed to trick Gómez into boarding a “taxi” that day matched the composite sketch of an AUC suspect in the massacre of 49 peasant farmers at Mapiripán in 1997.

Gómez had just published a story that documented the Colombian Army’s collaboration with the AUC in the Mapiripán massacre. That same day, Gómez found an envelope with his name stenciled on it in his mailbox at work. The envelope contained a photocopy of a recent article by Jineth Bedoya, one of his colleagues at El Espectador.

Bedoya had reported that La Modelo prison guards were allowing AUC inmates to keep guns in their cells even after clashes between them and other inmates that left 25 prisoners dead, 18 wounded, and an undetermined number missing, according to a United Nations report on the incident.

Bedoya and her editor, Jorge Cardona, received identical envelopes. An hour and a half later, Bedoya’s telephone rang. Gaitán was calling from his cell in La Modelo. He offered Bedoya the opportunity to interview him at the prison at 10:00 a.m. the next day. He promised the 25-year-old reporter an exclusive and asked her to come alone.

Cardona insisted on accompanying Bedoya and on bringing a photographer. The three El Espectador journalists arrived at La Modelo shortly before 10:00 a.m. on May 25. Prison guards told them to wait.

The visitors waiting area is just inside the entrance to La Modelo, although many visitors prefer to wait in the street just outside the entrance. Cardona and the photographer walked to a nearby concession stand to buy sodas, leaving Bedoya standing in front of the prison entrance. She stayed within view and earshot of the waiting area in case the guards cleared them to enter the jail.

Bedoya disappeared during the few minutes it took her colleagues to buy the sodas and return to the prison entrance. The prison guards claimed they had seen nothing.

At 8 p.m., the police reported that Bedoya had been admitted to a police medical clinic in the city of Villavicencio, a three-hour drive from La Modelo. A taxi driver found her lying with her hands tied in a garbage dump on the outskirts of town. She had been drugged, brutally beaten, and sexually assaulted. Bedoya was found in a state of nervous collapse but eventually recovered from the attack and returned to work at El Espectador.

During the assault, the men told her in graphic detail about all the other journalists whom they planned to kill, including her colleague Gómez. They did not explain why they chose to free her. A week later, Gómez fled to the United States.

No suspects have been charged in the attack on Bedoya. Gaitán and Velásquez both denied any role in her abduction, as do La Modelo prison authorities.

In a June 2000 interview with El Tiempo, Castaño also disclaimed responsibility for Bedoya’s ordeal. He acknowledged that Gaitán was his subordinate, but claimed that Gaitán had assured him he was not involved.

On the evening of September 7, 2001, Gaitán was murdered in a prison called La Picota. He was apparently killed by leftist guerrilla inmates in retaliation for last year’s jailhouse massacre at La Modelo.

The hunt for Castaño

Since the death of Pablo Escobar, no Colombian has terrorized so many members of the Colombian press, to say nothing of Colombian society in general. Carlos Castaño’s extraordinary assault against local journalists comes as the Colombian government is receiving a record amount of U.S. aid. On September 10, as U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell was about to leave on a visit to Colombia, the State Department formally designated the AUC as a terrorist organization.

Yet U.S.-backed Colombian forces have so far been powerless to stop Castaño. As a result, he has enjoyed complete impunity for his crimes. The Attorney General’s Office was the only Colombian law enforcement agency that even tried to pursue Castaño. Earlier this year, its civilian agents launched a series of raids against the AUC. But they complained of working without the support of the military or other government bodies. “In this struggle…the Attorney General’s Office has been alone,” chief investigator Pablo Elías González told El Tiempo in June 2000.

At that time, the AUC had just kidnapped seven members of González’s staff while they were exhuming the corpse of an alleged AUC victim in Cesar State. All seven investigators remain missing and are presumed dead at the hands of Castaño’s men.

Leftist guerrilla attacks on the press

Carlos Castaño is by no means the only threat to the embattled Colombian press. The country’s two main leftist guerrilla organizations, the ELN and the FARC, have both threatened and kidnapped dozens of journalists in recent years.

The FARC kidnapped seven journalists in October 1999 and held them for five days. El Tiempo editor Francisco Santos (who was once kidnapped by Pablo Escobar) has also been threatened by the FARC and is now living in Spain. And RCN television correspondent Claudia Gurisatti received FARC threats last year after the station aired her interview with Castaño. Both Santos and Gurisatti have since fled into exile.

There are indications that FARC was responsible for the December 13, 2000, killing of radio station director Alfredo Abad López, according to reliable Colombian sources. Abad was the director of Voz de la Selva (“Voice of the Jungle”), an affiliate of the national Caracol radio network in the southern Colombian city of Florencia. Just before his death, Abad had conducted an on-air discussion on whether the government should renew its grant of a Switzerland-sized chunk of territory to the FARC. A majority of the callers apparently opposed renewal.

The FARC has also been linked to the July 6 killing of José Duviel Vásquez Arias, who took over as news director of Voz de la Selva after Abad was murdered. Vásquez’s last broadcasts dealt with an AUC communiqué announcing changes in local leadership and promising to refrain from kidnapping and extortion.

On May 23, 2001, FARC guerrillas briefly detained three employees of the Medellín daily El Colombiano, according to the Colombian press freedom organization FLIP (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa). Correspondent Gustavo Gallo Machado, photographer Donaldo de Jesús Zuluaga Velilla, and driver Ramón Morales were held for several hours, and their vehicle was damaged. That same day, FLIP reported, an urban faction of the ELN distributed a pamphlet directed at all Colombian journalists, who were warned to avoid partiality.

Frank Smyth is an investigative reporter and CPJ’s Washington representative.