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Online threats, intimidation and judicial harassment against environmental journalist Alberto Castaño

Online threats, intimidation and judicial harassment against environmental journalist Alberto Castaño

Alberto Castaño is an environmental journalist supported by our partner Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP). FLIP is a non-governmental organisation that promotes press freedom in Colombia. It also oversees the rights of citizens to be informed. Since 1996, FLIP has assisted more than 2000 Colombian journalists at risk.

As an environmental journalist working in Colombia, Alberto Castaño is accustomed to threats. Castaño and his wife, María Lourdes Zimmerman, report on environmental abuses happening across the country. Their work has resulted in online threats, intimidation, and judicial harassment. In 2018, identifying information about Castaño and his 8-year-old son was shared on Twitter. His address had been shared publicly online; he had been doxxed.

​​Environmental defenders persecuted with impunity in Colombia

Colombia is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist in the Western Hemisphere. Reporters face intimidation, kidnapping and violence. Some journalists are even murdered for their reporting. According to FLIP, nearly 80 percent of journalist killings result in impunity. Journalists are also increasingly targeted with judicial harassment.

Around the world, journalists and activists highlighting environmental abuses operate with high risks of retaliation for their work. Global Witness reports that 1,733 environmental activists were killed globally between 2012 and 2021. Over three-quarters of these killings occurred in Latin America.

In 2022, HRD Memorial partners recorded 194 murders globally of human rights defenders working on issues relating to the protection of land, environmental rights and Indigenous peoples’ rights. This accounts for 48 percent of the total global killings of human rights activists that year. In Colombia too, environmental and Indigenous rights defenders were disproportionately targeted. In 2022, the country recorded the highest number globally. That year, there were 88 lethal attacks against environmental and indigenous rights defenders. Land inequality, state and corporate corruption, and decades of violent conflict have created an atmosphere in which environmental defenders are persecuted with impunity in Colombia.

Reporting about a hydroelectric dam

Castaño and Zimmerman previously worked for Blu Radio, one of Colombia’s major news outlets. They investigated and reported on environmental issues at the radio station. Whilst their work was not directly censored, Blu Radio made it clear they were ‘uncomfortable’ with Castaño and Zimmerman’s investigations. Despite this, the journalists continued to expose a number of environmental scandals in Colombia. One of their stories detailed a scandal concerning one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the country, El Quimbo.

Their programme on Blu Radio was shut down in February 2016. The two journalists were subsequently fired from the station. A few days later, their website, Natural Press, was flooded with pornographic content. Castaño has pointed out that one of the contractor companies operating at El Quimbo belongs to the same economic group that owns Blu Radio.

Escalating threats against the environmental journalists

Castaño first reached out to FLIP in 2018, when the threats against himself and his partner began to escalate. They had published a report on a conservation news site called Mongabay, documenting the assassinations of environmental and indigenous leaders over the previous year. The next day, Castaño and his son’s location was exposed on Twitter. Over the course of the next few months, Castaño noticed cars loitering outside their home on several occasions. He was also allegedly threatened by an armed man.

FLIP issued a press release detailing the intimidation, which was published by news outlets across Colombia. They also contacted the Unidad Nacional de Protección (UNP), a state authority tasked with protecting people at risk, requesting that they conduct a risk assessment of Castaño’s situation. However, the UNP did not respond. The family ultimately decided to leave Colombia.

Once they reached Canada, however, the intimidation continued. Zimmerman’s Facebook account was hacked: her profile picture was replaced with a photograph of a teddy bear covered in blood, superimposed on a photograph of their family. FLIP reported this latest threat to the UNP on their behalf, who then agreed to initiate a risk assessment.

After being presented with a lawsuit in 2020, filed against him in response to one of his exposés, Castaño sought FLIP’s assistance again. He did not know how to defend himself. As Castaño tells us: “we never in our professional lives had another lawsuit [filed against us]”. The journalists reported the case to FLIP, who in response immediately offered their support. FLIP’s lawyers helped to defend Castaño in the proceedings. They ultimately won the case. 

“If FLIP is strong, then journalism in Colombia is strong”

When interviewing Castaño, he tells us that he feels “immense gratitude” to FLIP and Media Defence. “If it wasn’t for the help FLIP and Media Defence gave me, I don’t even want to think that my three children could perfectly well be growing up without parents.” “At this moment we are far from home, suffering rootlessness, but we are alive – and that is because they reached out to us, they helped us, they covered us with their support,” he says. “If FLIP is strong, then journalism in Colombia is strong.”

Castaño believes that the biggest challenge journalists are facing in Colombia today is “the lack of resources to be able to do free journalism”. If the press was truly independent, Colombia would be a “free country; it would not be co-opted by great economic powers”. He remains committed to this vision: “I will never stop fighting against corruption in the media.”

 

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