In Colombia, Muckrakers Have Become Scarce
By Tina Rosenberg

Colombia, a world leader in the production of tribulations, has also had a long tradition of journalists willing and able to investigate them. One of the best is Fabio Castillo, 47, until last month the chief of investigations for the Bogota newspaper El Espectador. Mr. Castillo was fired just after implicating Fernando Londoqo Hoyos, who is both minister of interior and justice, in a corruption scandal. Mr. Castillo's dismissal shows the varied ways Colombia is silencing the independent voices that it so sorely needs.

Mr. Castillo, who is more or less Colombia's Bob Woodward, is better off than many other reporters there: he is alive. Around 30 of Colombia's journalists have been murdered in the last 10 years. Mr. Castillo's prominence helps protect him, although losing the backing of what has historically been the country's second most important newspaper makes him a much more vulnerable target for the numerous powerful people he has alienated in his decades of investigative reporting. So far he has received no threats. "They have already gotten what they wanted," he said. "I am censored."

He believes that he was shut down because of his investigation of Mr. Londoqo. His publisher contends that he was a victim of the newspaper's economic problems. El Espectador, for years a leader in challenging government officials, has turned more cautious under its new management, operating in a much more restrictive political climate.

Mr. Castillo's investigation deals with the Banco del Pacmfico. Based on the bank's secret documents, it alleges that the bank overwhelmingly drew its income from collecting the tax payments of Colombian citizens, and lent part of its funds to its directors. As in many countries, Colombia's banks collect tax payments, but they are required to turn them over to the government after 20 days. The beneficiaries of the loans described by Mr. Castillo include many of Colombia's most powerful figures, including Mr. Londoqo, who was chairman of the board. Mr. Londoqo used the loans to buy a large share of Invercolsa, a newly privatized subsidiary of the state gas company. His purchase of those shares has generated a storm of controversy and several government inquiries. Mr. Londoqo has said that all the loans have been repaid and that nothing illegal took place. But four years after regulators finally closed the bank, it still owes millions of dollars in tax money to the government, Mr. Castillo says.

One of the most alarming aspects of the tale is that Mr. Londoqo has admitted that he received a draft of Mr. Castillo's article well before its publication, without Mr. Castillo's knowledge. Ricardo Santamarma, El Espectador's publisher, has asked Colombian authorities to investigate how the minister of the interior got the paper's internal document. But many people close to the paper speculate that an employee of El Espectador with ties to Mr. Londoqo may have passed it to him. That employee, Jorge Lesmes, who in an interview denied being Mr. Londoqo's source, is Mr. Santamarma's right-hand man.

Mr. Santamarma argues strenuously that Mr. Castillo was fired purely for financial reasons. The newspaper is indeed in a crisis, and he was one of five editors fired in the same week. El Espectador is now publishing in paper form only on Sundays, although it comes out daily on the Internet. Mr. Santamarma said in an interview that he had chosen to retain the paper's other investigative reporter, Norbey Quevedo, because he produces more, and more varied, reports. Mr. Santamarma specifically praised a report on liposuction that drew many readers' letters.

The more likely explanation is that the staff reductions allowed the paper to get rid of a reporter whose days were numbered. During Colombia's presidential campaign, Mr. Castillo wrote a profile of Alvaro Uribe, now the president, which contained allegations of corruption in Mr. Uribe's past. Although these accusations were widely circulating in Colombia, there was strong pressure not to publish the article, according to someone close to the paper. It never ran. Since Mr. Santamarma took over the newspaper last December, it has become more aligned with the government, and it was clear that Mr. Castillo was going to have to leave.

Mr. Castillo is mulling his possibilities, which may include leaving Colombia. If he does, he will join seven or eight of the country's best journalists, now writing from Spain, the United States and elsewhere in Latin America. They leave because their lives are threatened, but also because there are fewer and fewer outlets for their work. Courage helps little if no one will publish what you write. If Colombia's journalists in exile decided to start a newspaper about their nation, that would really be worth reading.

[Source: By Tina Rosemberg, NYT, 03jul03]

DDHH in Colombia

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This document has been published on 30jul03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.