Press Freedom, Violence Against Speakers / Impunity
The Case of Orlando Sierra Hernández
Closed Expands Expression
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In April 2003, Colombian radio host José Emeterio Rivas at Calor Estéreo station was murdered by a member of a paramilitary group in retaliation for publicly condemning the group’s activities in Northern part of Colombia.
In August 2013, the Superior Tribunal of Bogotá convicted Rodrigo Pérez Alzate and sentenced to 8 years in prison pursuant to Act 975 of 2005, commonly known as “Justice and Peace Act,” designed to conduct criminal proceedings against members of paramilitary groups who have met a series of conditions, including demobilization. The court held that the killing of José Emeterio Rivas was both a serious violation of international humanitarian law, as it occurred during the country’s internal armed conflict, and a crime against humanity.
José Emeterio Rivas was a radio host at the Colombian radio station Calor Estéreo, which broadcasts live from the municipality of Ancuya in Nariño. Days before his death, the station publicly condemned the actions of the paramilitary groups in the area. Early in the morning of April 7, 2003, Pablo Emilio Quintero, a member of the paramilitary group Bloque Central Bolivar, murdered Rivas. In January 2009, the former mayor of the city of Barrancabermeja and two other former government officials were found guilty of instigating the homicide and were sentenced to 28 years in prison. According to the judgment, the mayor apparently paid the perpetrators pesos 150 million (approximately $53,000) to murder the journalist.
The facts analyzed in this judgment and the convictions of the paramilitary leaders involved in the homicide took place under the specialized transitional legal framework created by Act 975 of 2005, also known as the “Justice and Peace Act.” The law was enacted by the Congress of Colombia in order to achieve the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of armed groups operating outside the law as part of the country’s internal armed conflict.
The Superior Tribunal of Bogotá ruled that the killing of protected persons at the hands of the Bloque Central Bolivar paramilitary group the Colombian during the country’s internal armed conflict was a serious breach of international humanitarian law and a crime against humanity.
The court found that the crimes were part of a carefully orchestrated plan to kill individuals suspected of belonging to or collaborating with insurgent groups, union members, members of criminal gangs, sex workers, as well as journalists and human rights defenders who had denounced the paramilitary groups or had created negative publicity about them.
With respect to the death of José Emeterio Rivas, the court noted he not only was a protected person under international humanitarian law, his profession as a journalist required enhanced protection. The court specifically referred to the importance of freedom of expression and the role of journalism envisioned under Article 19(1) of the International Covenant to Civil and Political Rights. While the killing was committed by a paramilitary group, the court underscored the government ‘s responsibility to guarantee every individual’s right to hold and express opinions.
In addition, the court considered a report issued by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Special Rapporteur called the act of killing journalists for reasons related to their work as “the most serious violation of the right to freedom of expression.” It not only violates that person’s right to life, it infringes the public’s right to seek and receive to information and ideas. In this regard, the Court states that in Colombia, the exercise of press freedom has become a dangerous activity due to the internal armed conflicts.
Accordingly, the Superior Tribunal of Bogotá first concluded that the killing of José Emeterio Rivas amounted to a severe violation of the right to freedom of expression, both as personal right of a journalist and the public’s right to information. It also found the killing both in violation of international humanitarian law and a crime against humanity.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision expands protection for the right of freedom of expression for several reasons. First, the judgment establishes the State’s obligation to protect the free flow of ideas in the context of armed conflict. Moreover, the court noted that the government has a special obligation to protect journalists in the context of armed conflict, given the vital importance of their activities. Finally, the declaration of the crime committed against the journalist as a crime against humanity sets a precedent with a ripple effect that is extremely useful in the fight against impunity for this type of crimes. In effect, this decision sets a crucial precedent so that in the future the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la Nación) may rule other crimes against journalists committed in the context of the armed conflict as crimes against humanity, which may help to prevent the statute of limitations for criminal proceedings from expiring and keep the case open. In Colombia, dozens of investigations into crimes against journalists have been closed due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.
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