Inter-American Court of Human Rights first as Colombia is condemned for journalist’s murder

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Posted on: 
13 Jul 2018

A local community radio station in Putumayo, South Colombia. Photographed as part of FLIP's project Cartographies of Information

On 6 June 2018, the Inter American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) published its judgment condemning the Colombian government for failing to investigate the case of the murdered journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal. This is the first time the Court has condemned a state in the case of a journalist being killed because of their work.

Carvajal was a teacher and radio journalist and producer from Pitalito Huila, a small city in the south of Colombia. In the course of his journalism he criticised local corruption and reported on drug trafficking, money laundering, and irregularities in the city’s administration. In 1998 he was shot multiple times. In the 20 years since his murder, Colombian justice has not brought any charges against the perpetrators of the crime. Meanwhile, death threats against nine of Carvajal’s relatives have forced his bereaved family into exile.

The IACtHR said in its judgment that Colombia has a history of both violence against the press and impunity for the perpetrators of those attacks. The IACtHR said that in 1998 Colombia was "the most deadly place in the world for the press". The Colombian government argued that violence against the media was a thing of the past. However, according to FLIP’s own numbers, there were 316 reported attacks against the press in Colombia during 2017. This number does not seem to be decreasing either, as there have been 186 attacks reported in just the first five months of 2018.

The Court considered that Carvajal’s murder was motivated to stop his reporting, and found that the lack of a proper criminal investigation into Carvajal’s murder constituted a violation of the state’s obligation to guarantee a right to life. Member States to the American Convention on Human Rights are not only bound by negative obligations (obliged to not violate these human rights) but they also have a positive obligation to protect citizens’ lives – including a judiciary that works effectively in the investigation and prosecution of crimes such as murder.

The Court said that "one of the most violent ways of suppressing the right to free expression is through the murder of journalists" and concluded that both the homicide and the lack of investigation constituted a violation of the right to free expression. The violation was both on an individual level – as Carvajal’s death means he is no longer able to express himself, and also on a wider level as the public will no longer receive the information which Carvajal gathered and broadcast in the course of his work. Additionally, the Court considered that the death threats against Carvajal, his murder, and further death threats against nine members of his family, were all done with the aim of censorship.

The Court determined that twenty years was a more than reasonable period of time for a criminal enquiry. The Court did not go further in providing specific details on how the Colombian judiciary had failed on its duties to properly investigate Carvajal’s murder or bring his killers to justice. However, the Court did refer to the lack of investigation into the death threats against his family members as further evidence demonstrating the pattern of impunity.

The Court ordered the Colombian government to continue investigating the murder and to hold a public event to recognise its international responsibility. The Court also ordered the Colombian government to pay Carvajal’s family US $250,000 in compensation, to provide assistance for them to return to Colombia if they wish to, and to pay for therapy.

Nelson Carvajal’s case is the third IACtHR ruling which has condemned the Colombian government for violating a journalist’s freedom of expression. All three cases have involved violence.

The case was submitted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington D.C. During the process, 14 civil society organisations intervened, including FLIP (La Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa or, in English, The Foundation for Free Press) is a Colombian NGO and a partner organisation of Media Defence. 

FLIP’s intervention in this case was part of their project “supporting defence of journalists in Colombia” which is partially funded by Media Defence.

MLDI would like to thank Emmanuel Vargas of FLIP for drafting this piece on behalf of MLDI. 

FLIP is a Colombian NGO dedicated to the promotion of press freedom in Colombia. It was founded in 1996 by a group of recognised investigative journalists, including Nobel-prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. The organisation is dedicated to advocating for better conditions for the press in Colombia and enabling an environment for journalists to exercise their right to freedom of expression. FLIP are one of 14 partner organisations that receive funding and support from Media Defence under its National Media Defence Centre Programme.