Gambia - President Jammeh must put an end to 20 years of repression and impunity for human rights violations
On the 20th anniversary of the military coup that brought dictator Yahya Jahmmeh to power, Reporters Without Borders joins other free speech and human rights organizations in calling for an end to 20 years of impunity for human rights violation in Gambia.
Gambian President Yahya Jahmmeh is one of the world's 39 "Predators of press freedom."
22 July 1994 - 22 July 2014: 20 Years of Fear in Gambia
On 22 July 1994, a group of military officers led by lieutenant Yahya Jammeh overthrew President Dawda Jawara, who had been in power in Gambia since 1970. Supported by the Army, Yahya Jammeh proclaimed himself President of the Republic and, over time, took direct control of the Ministry of Defence and of the Interior.
Since then, the Gambian government tolerates no dissent and commits serious human rights violations. Human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents and other Gambians who are critical of government policies face intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, ill-treatment, death threats and enforced disappearance.
Some of the human rights violations recorded over the last 20 years include the killing of 14 protesters in April 2000, the unlawful killing of journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004, the enforced disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh in 2006, the torture of journalist Musa Saidykhan in 2006, the arbitrary executions of 9 prisoners in 2012, and the “incommunicado” detention of human rights defender Imam Baba Leigh for five months of the same year.
The Gambian government has repeatedly failed to comply with several rulings by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice, namely refusing to compensate Musa Saidykhan, and the families of Ebrima Manneh and Deyda Hydara.
The justice system has also been weakened since President Yahya Jammeh came to power, undermined by interference from the executive branch and by the increasingly repressive legislation aimed at muzzling dissent.
In April 2013, the National Assembly amended the Criminal Code, increasing sanctions for “giving false information to public servants” (Section 114) from six months imprisonment and/or a fine of 500 Dalasi (approximately US$13) to imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of 50,000 Dalasi (US$1,293).
In July 2013, the National Assembly passed the Information and Communication (Amendment) Act saying that internet users, journalists and bloggers found guilty of spreading false news can be punished by up to 15 years in prison and may be fined up to 3 million dalasi (approximately US$74,690).
In this pervasive climate of fear, most journalists, human rights defenders and citizens are forced to practice self-censorship or flee the country.
In response to these flagrant and ongoing human rights violations by the Gambia, the country hosting the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights - the primary human rights institution of Africa - our organizations continue to mobilize to put an end to repression and impunity in Gambia.
We call the attention of the international community – in particular, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Economic Community of West African States, (ECOWAS) and African States – to the deteriorating human rights situation and lack of effective remedies for victims in Gambia over the past 20 years.
We urge President Yahya Jammeh to ensure that Gambian authorities :
• Investigate all reported human rights abuses and bring perpetrators to justice;
• Repeal legislative provisions used to restrict freedom of expression, in particular the Information and Communication Act, the Indemnity Act and the Criminal Code Amendment;
• Uphold the universal rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association and allow journalists, human rights defenders and political activists to continue their activities unhindered without fear of attacks, arbitrary arrests, torture and enforced disappearance;
• Release immediately and unconditionally all prisoners of conscience, including journalist Ebrima Manneh and members the opposition party United Democratic Party (UDP) Amadou Sanneh, Alhagie Sambou Fatty and Malang Fatty; • Release all those who are currently detained unlawfully or charge them with a recognizable offence in a fair trial;
• Promptly implement and enforce judgments from the ECOWAS Court of Justice on the situation of journalists Ebrima Manneh (June 2008), Musa Saidykhan (December 2010) and Deyda Hydara (June 2014).
1. Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
2. South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) (Burkina Faso)
3. Centre de Presse Norbert Zongo (Cote d'Ivoire)
4. Coalition de Société Civile pour la paix et le Développement Démocratique en Côte d'Ivoire (COSOPCI)
5. Club Union Africaine CI Cote d'Ivoire
6. Ligue Ivoirienne des Droits de l'Homme (LIDHO) (Gambia)
7. Democratic Union of Gambian Activists (DUGA)
8. Coalition for Change Gambia (CCG) (Ghana)
9. Akoto Ampaw, Lawyer Kenya
10. Wilson Kipkazi (Liberia)
11. Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP)
12. Union des journalists Liberians (Mali)
13. Institut pour la Démocratie et l'Education au Mali (IDEM)
14. Maison de la Presse (Nigeria)
15. Institute for Media and Society
16. International Press Centre (IPC)
17. Media Rights Agenda (MRA) (Sénégal)
18. Cicodev Afrique
19. Conseil des Organisations non Gouvernementales (CONGAD)
20. Ligue Sénégalaise des Droits de l'Homme(LSDH)
21. Rencontre Africaine pour les droits de l'homme (RADDHO)
22. Y'en à Marre
23. Africa Freedom of Information Centre
24. Amnesty International
25. ARTICLE 19
26. Association Des Barreaux Africains (ABA)
27. Comité pour la Protection des Journalistes (CPJ)
28. Fédération des Journalistes Africains (FAJ)
29. Fédération Internationale des Journalistes (IFJ)
30. Forum des Editeurs Africains
31. International Press Institute (IPI)
32. Media Foundation for West Africa
33. Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)
34. Panos Institute for West Africa (IPAO)
35. Reporters Without Borders (RWB)
36. Union des Journalistes de l'Afrique de l'Ouest (WAJA)
(photo slideshow : Yahya Jammeh, Gambia president. Photo AFP)
(photo logo : from left to right, journalists Deyda Hydara, Ebrima Manneh et Musa Saidykhan)
Intimidation is being used to deter operators from resuming transmission of embattled TV news channel
Reporters Without Borders condemns the use of intimidation and violence as a new way to silence the embattled TV news station Geo News after unidentified gunmen torched cable TV operator WorldCall's premises in the southern city of Karachi on 19 July.
WorldCall had only recently resumed transmission of Geo News, which a government agency suspended for 15 days last month.
Police and witnesses said between four and six gunmen stormed into WorldCall's offices, disarmed security guards, ordered employees to leave and then set fire to the place. The blaze gutted the premises but caused no injuries. It also interrupted transmission of Geo News in several parts of the city.
“This attack was an illegal act of censorship and an unacceptable act of intimidation of cable TV operators, who play a key role in freedom of information,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk.
“Cable TV operators have already been the victims of intimidation in the past and now a new threat is hanging over them. The Pakistani authorities have a duty to take this threat seriously and adopt measures to protect them.”
WorldCall had received threats and had reported them to the police but no special measures were taken to protect the company.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) suspended Geo News for 15 days on 6 June after it broadcast claims by its leading anchor, Hamid Mir, that the intelligence agencies were behind the shooting attack in which he was badly injured on 19 April.
Although the 15-day suspension ended a month ago, Geo News still cannot be seen in many parts of Pakistan because threats are deterring cable TV operators from restoring it to the range of channels they offer. On 18 July, for example, an attempt was made to set fire to a cable TV operator in Rahimyar Khan, in the eastern province of Punjab.
Pakistan is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Reporters Without Borders is shocked and saddened by the death of the 26-year-old Palestinian news cameraman Khaled Hamad, fatally wounded two days ago as he was preparing a report on attacks by Israeli troops on Palestinian paramedics. Other media workers were wounded in earlier Israeli raids on the offices of news organizations.
“Reporters Without Borders deplores the Israeli army's bombardment of Palestinian civilians, including journalists,” said Virginie Dangles, Reporters Without Borders assistant research director. “We note that, under UN Security Council resolution 1738 of 2006 and the Geneva Conventions, all parties to the conflict have a duty to guarantee the safety of journalists.”
Since the start of Israel's Operation Protective Edge in the the Gaza Strip, 583 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians. On the Israeli side, 27 soldiers have died. Israeli bombardment two days ago of the Shuja'iyah neighbourhood just outside Gaza City alone caused 140 Palestinian deaths.
The offices of the Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera, on the 11th floor of the Al-Jala' Tower, were subjected to warning shots from Israeli forces today, a day after Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed the desire to stop Al-Jazeera operating from Israel, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Lieberman openly criticized the funding of the station by Qatar, which he described as the “economic backbone” of terrorist organizations in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Two days ago, Khaled Hamad, a cameraman for the Continue TV production company, was in Shijaiyah reporting on violence carried out on 10 July by Israeli troops against Palestinian paramedics assisting the injured.
Wearing a helmet and a bullet-proof vest with the word “press”, he was standing near an ambulance when it was hit by a tank shell and set on fire. Hamad was badly injured but could not be evacuated and died of his wounds several hours later.
On 9 July, Hamdi Shehab, a driver for the Media 24 news agency, was killed in an Israeli air raid while he was on his way back to his firm's office after the Ramadan iftar, the evening fast-breaking meal. He was driving a car marked “TV”.
The day before yesterday, the cameraman Kareem al-Tartouri, who worked for Medi 1 TV was injured in an Israeli air raid as he was trying to leave the building containing the offices of the TV station, which had been targeted in an attack. A second missile hit the floor where the station was located, injuring al-Tartouri who was taken to hospital.
Four days ago, Muhammad Shabat, a cameraman for the Watania Media Agency, was injured in the arm in a air strike on the Al-Jawhara tower, in which the Watania office is located. The offices of other news organizations in the building were also damaged.
On July 16, Israeli forces targeted the Daoud building in the al-Rimal neighbourhood of Gaza City, which also houses several news organizations. Two journalists from the Sawt Al-Wattan radio station, Ahmad al-Ajala and Tariq Hamdieh, were injured and taken to hospital. The station was unable to continue broadcasting as a result of the damage.
A media war
The Israeli military offensive in Gaza has set off a new information (and disinformation) war, especially on social media. Some news organizations and journalists have openly taken sides on Israel's use of force. Others have been accused of bias because of their actual or presumed point of view.
On 17 July, the US network NBC decided to recall its Egyptian-American correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza, replacing him with his colleague Richard Engel. Officially, the network said this was because of “security concerns” but gave no further details.
Mohyeldin, an experienced journalist who had previously worked for CNN and Al-Jazeera, had witnessed at first-hand Israeli strikes that killed four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach on 16 July.
His account of the deaths of the children, considered by some to be pro-Palestinian, was widely criticized. He was also accused of being too emotive about the incident by publishing photos of the victims' families on Twitter and Instagram. On 2 July, he posted a Tweet accusing the Israeli army of deliberately firing on journalists.
The US network CNN decided to withdraw its correspondent Diana Magnay after she posted a Tweet on 17 July after she reported live from the hill above the Israeli town of Sderot, where Israelis were cheering a rocket strike on Gaza. In her Tweet, she wrote: “Israelis on hill above Sderot cheer as bombs land on Gaza; threaten to ‘destroy our car if I say a word wrong'. Scum.” After she posted the Tweet, Magnay was transferred to Moscow.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, a CNN spokeswoman said the journalist was threatened by the Israelis before and during the live shot and reacted angrily on Twitter.
Finally, the Israeli government has told foreign journalists covering the offensive that it is not responsible for their safety.
Some foreign journalists say they have received a message from the authorities warning them that they could be used as human shields by Hamas, as reported by Huffington Post Middle East correspondent Sophia Jones.
In breach of international law, journalists, who must register with the Government Press Office, are also made to sign a waiver declaring that they are fully aware of the dangers to which they are exposed. The document goes on: “I am aware that neither the MOD nor the IDF shall be bear any liability whatsoever for damage resulting from military operations…… Furthermore I hereby undertake that no suit, claim or demand of any kind shall be filed for damage or injury…"
Around 60 Nicaraguan journalists demonstrated outside national police headquarters on 17 July to demand effective police protection against violence by government supporters, who often use force to break up opposition protests.
Journalists accuse the police of being too passive when supporters of the Sandinista Front government resort to indiscriminate violence against anti-government protesters, resulting in attacks on reporters who are there to cover the protests.
Supporters on motorcycles, known as the “motorcycle brigade,” often accompany the public appearances of the president and first lady or other senior members of the Sandinista Front, which has been in power again since 2006 after 16 years in opposition.
When the motorcycle brigade arrived to disperse a protest outside the Supreme Electoral Council building on 16 July, Canal 12 TV cameraman Xavier Castro – who was covering the protest – was clubbed by a man in a motorcycle helmet and his camera was smashed beyond repair because he had to use it fend off the blows.
The police did not intervene to protect Castro, although the Supreme Electoral Council is right opposite police headquarters. Furthermore, the police showed little interest when he filed a complaint afterwards, he said.
Canal 2 reporter Edgardo Trejos has a similar complaint about an incident on 9 July, when he tried to interview the health ministry's director of supply warehouses and the director's driver drove his car into him. “I filed a complaint about this attack but there was no investigation,” he said.
“We support the demands of these Nicaraguan journalists,” said Camille Soulier, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk. “Their safety should be guaranteed by the police, who have a duty to protect all citizens regardless of their views. Intimidation and violence against journalists should be investigated in an exemplary manner. They should not go unpunished.”
Captain Fernando Borge, the national police spokesman, seemed unimpressed by the 82 signatures at the foot of the letter handed in by the journalists and declined to make any comment aside from claiming that he was unaware of any of the incidents that prompted the protest.
The journalists were filmed as they left the police station, fuelling a climate of suspicion in which any question by journalist can be construed as hostile action, a climate that encourages self-censorship and complicates journalists' work.
Despite the extreme polarization of the Nicaraguan media, which government supporters and opponents use to wage vicious feuds, Nicaragua's journalists had always tended to close ranks when one of them was attacked, regardless of his or her political views.
But some journalists have now taken to employing the previously unused term of “independent” to label themselves and set themselves apart from journalists working for pro-government media, who get privileged access to official events.
The culture of secrecy espoused by many senior government officials is all the more disturbing when information of public interest is involved. It is reinforcing the widespread feeling that questioning the general lack of transparency is tantamount to a betrayal of national interests.
As a result, those who express or report critical opinions are exposed to public condemnation by government supporters, many of whom feel justified in using force to back up their disapproval.
No matter how necessary a debate may be, it can never justify the use of violence. The armed attacks on buses carrying Sandinista Front supporters on the night of 19 July, in which five people were killed and dozens wounded, must therefore be firmly condemned. These ambushes clearly aimed in the most hateful manner to revive the darkest moments of the Nicaraguan civil war that caused tens of thousands of casualties between 1980 and 1990.
Reporters Without Borders welcomes the Bolivian supreme court's decision to overturn the 30-month jail sentence that Rogelio Peláez, the editor of the monthly Larga Vista, received two years ago for allegedly defaming a lawyer, Waldo Molina, by accusing him in the magazine's April 2010 issue of illicit enrichment.
The ruling, handed down on 28 April, ends years of legal wrangling and judicial harassment for Peláez, but other Bolivian journalists are currently the targets of legal proceedings.
“While pleased by the quashing of Peláez's prison sentence, we have not forgotten the arbitrary proceedings against two of the daily La Razón's journalists, Claudio Aguilar and Claudia Buenavente,” said Camille Soulier, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk.
“The authorities have accused them of spying and revealing state secrets, and want to violate the confidentiality of their sources. The Bolivian justice system must respect the inviolability of journalists' sources, which is guaranteed by the 1925 press law.”
Aguilar and Buenavente have been charged in connection with a 13 April article about a complaint that land-locked Bolivia brought against Chile before the International Court of Justice in The Hague as part of its historic campaign to recover access to the Pacific Ocean, lost in a 19th century war.
As well as accusing them of spying, the prosecutor-general ordered them to reveal their sources. According to the government, the information they reported in La Razón was a state secret. But in Chile, all documents related to Bolivia's complaint are available to the public.
The current climate is hostile to investigative journalism. In one recent example of this, a teargas grenade was thrown into the Canal 33 TV studio during the recording of the current affairs programme “Lo que se ve se anota” on 17 June, as Chamber of Deputies human rights commission president Rodolfo Calle was about to be interviewed.
The grenade was preceded by a series of anonymous phone calls during the morning demanding the programme's cancellation.
President Evo Morales fuelled the tension at a news conference the same day, when he said he did not trust the independent media. The independence of each so-called “independent” news outlet was sacrificed to its editorial policies and to private interests, he said.
The daily Página Siete and the news agency Fides are among the other news media that are currently the target of proceedings by the Bolivian authorities.
Bolivia is ranked 94th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
An EU ruling, giving individuals the ‘right to be forgotten’ on the internet, has been criticized by UK journalists after Google deleted links to their articles from its search engine. Robert Peston, BBC News economics editor, last week accused Google of censorship and said the ruling will “curb freedom of expression and suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest.” The Guardian newspaper described the directive as a “huge challenge to press freedom.”
The right to be forgotten was applied against Google in May, following an appeal by a Spanish lawyer to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The court ruled that Google Spain should delete information about the 1998 repossession of the lawyer’s home and that any information deemed ‘inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant,’ must be removed from search engines if requested by an individual. Since then, Google has received more than 70,000 requests from across Europe to remove links to more than 267,000 webpages.
Among the first articles removed were a blog written by Robert Peston in 2007, criticising a senior banker, and another, in the Guardian in 2010, about a football referee who lied about a penalty decision. In both cases the journalists who wrote the articles argued they were in the public interest. Google later reversed its decision to remove links to the football referee story, following an appeal by the Guardian. Media experts say that Google’s indecision over which links to delete, demonstrated that the company must not be required to judge whether an article should be on the internet.
Mark Stephens, a London-based media lawyer, argued that “holding intermediaries responsible for determining what information is in the public interest is dangerous and unworkable: more than 100 billion searches occur each month on Google alone, which could in theory be subject to review-on-demand for adequacy and relevance, rather than accuracy or lawfulness.”
Stephens believes the new ruling would be biased towards influential sectors of society. “This overreaching judgment is far more likely to aid the powerful in attempts to rewrite history, than afford individuals more influence over their online identities,” he wrote soon after the judgment. The Index on Censorship also challenged the ruling: “It’s like the government devolving power to librarians to decide what books people can read (based on requests from the public) and then locking those books away,” it said in a statement. Campaigners say Google has deliberately applied the ruling too liberally, to create bad publicity and highlight its flaws.
Paul Bernal, lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the University of East Anglia, believes that Google has chosen to delete links to stories by high profile journalists, such as Robert Peston, and Roy Greenslade, a Guardian media commentator, hoping they would loudly complain of press censorship.
Bernal is among a number of privacy campaigners who believe that although the recent ECJ directive is vague and difficult to implement, the principle is right. He said the concept should be clarified and refined as part of the proposed new EU Data Protection Regulation. “A well-executed reform, with a better written and more appropriate version of the right to be forgotten is the ultimate solution here,” Bernal said. “If that can be brought in soon – rather than delayed or undermined – then we can all move on from the Google Spain ruling, both legally and practically. I think everyone might benefit from that.”
Simon Hughes, the UK’s justice minister said that while the British government wants to maintain people’s right to privacy, it must also protect freedom of speech. He said people should not assume that they have an “unfettered” right to remove material about themselves from search engines just because it is inconvenient and that in many cases there is a public interest in keeping information alive. Google, which delivers more than 90 per cent of European online searches, claims to have hundreds of staff, including paralegals, working on assessing requests to delete information. “This is a new and evolving process for us,” a spokesman said.
Photo credit: Brian J. Matis / Flickr Cc
Besides its regular press releases, Reporters Without Borders is maintaining a Ukraine news feed in order to summarize the violations of freedom of information constantly taking place in Ukraine.
21.07.2014 - Ukrainian journalist to spend 10 days in solitary in Russia
Yevgeny Agarkov, a Ukrainian reporter for “Spetskor,” a programme broadcast by Ukrainian channel 2+2, was arrested by Russian immigration officials near Voronezh, in southwestern Russia, on 18 July for not being accredited with the Russian foreign ministry. Later the same day, an administrative court convicted him of “working illegally as a journalist” and sentenced him to a fine of 2,000 roubles (40 euros), expulsion from Russia and a five-year ban on reentering the country.
The court stipulated that his expulsion would take effect on 28 July, pending which he was to be detained. He was transferred to a detention centre 160 km from the city of Voronezh and was placed in solitary confinement.
“Agarkov's prolonged detention is disproportionate, especially as he is being held in an isolation cell,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “This journalist is being treated like a criminal although all he did was contravene the administrative code. We urge the Russian authorities to free him and return him to Ukraine without delay.”
Agarkov went to Voronezh to cover the case of Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who is being held there for alleged complicity in the deaths of Russian journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who were killed by mortar fire in the Luhansk region (in eastern Ukraine) on 17 June.
20.07.2014 - Rebels arrest ten journalists outside Donetsk morgue
Around ten journalists were arrested by the security services of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk (PRD) when they tried to enter the morgue in Donetsk on 19 and 20 July as part of their coverage of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 on 17 July, in which 298 people died.
Those arrested outside the morgue on 20 July included Kevin Bishop, a British reporter for the BBC, Anna Nemtsova, a Russian reporter for The Daily Beast, Simon Shuster, a US reporter for Time Magazine, Italian journalist Lucia Sgueglia, and two reporters for the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, Paul Hansen and Jan Lewenhagen. They were all taken to the local headquarters of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), where they were questioned and then released a few hours later. A Russian TV crew with Russia Today that was arrested in similar circumstances on 19 July was held overnight before being released.
Nemtsova said the rebels posted outside the morgue had been given orders to arrest all journalists trying to go inside. When a Russia Today cameraman asked PRD Prime Minister Alexander Borodai at a news conference why he had spent a night in detention, Borodai responded with a joke: “You're not a real journalist if you haven't spent a night in the SBU.”
17.07.2014 - Bomb hoaxes at two national TV stations
The Kiev police received an anonymous message on 17 July warning that a bomb had been left inside the premises of Inter, a national TV channel owned by oligarch Dmitri Firtash. A search of Inter revealed nothing suspicious. The police are trying to identify the source of the anonymous call.
Earlier in the day, an anonymous message reported that a bomb had been left at 5 Kanal, a national TV station owned by President Petro Poroshenko. Its offices were evacuated and searched but no trace of explosives was found. It was the third false bomb alert at 5 Kanal this month. The previous ones were on 4 and 15 July. Each time 5 Kanal was forced to interrupt programming.
16.07.2014 - Rebels seize Luhansk news site's computer equipment
Serhiy Sakadynski, the editor of the Luhansk-based news website Politika 2.0, revealed on 16 July that anti-Kiev rebels removed all of its computer equipment, cameras and video cameras during a raid on its offices on 10 July. The raid took place after they caught a Politika 2.0 reporter taking photos of Luhansk railway station, accused her of spying, and decided that Politika 2.0 was “gathering information about the rebels.” They gave Sakadynski a beating during the raid and took him with them when they left, releasing him the next day after influential persons intervened. The equipment has not been returned.
11.07.2014 - Heavy toll on journalists in first half of 2014
The Institute of Mass Information (IMI), a Ukrainian NGO partnered with Reporters Without Borders, has released figures for media freedom violations during the first half of 2014. According to IMI's tally, six journalists were killed in connection with their work, 249 were injured or attacked, and at least 55 were taken hostage or detained arbitrarily. The toll was much higher than in 2013, when a total of 101 attacks on journalists were registered during the entire year, half of them in connection with the Maidan Square protests in November and December.
“Physical attacks against journalists and other media workers currently pose one of the main challenges for the media profession,” said IMI director Oksana Romanyuk. “The authorities also face the challenge of investigating all these [attacks] and punishing those responsible. Ending impunity [...] and defending the public's right to information should be one of the main items on the new president's agenda.”
Read the IMI report (in Ukrainian).
10.07.2014 - Luhansk TV channel suspends broadcasting
A Luhansk-based TV station called Luhansk Cable Television (LKT) has suspended broadcasting because of the ongoing fighting in the city. The stations's CEO told employees on 10 July he could not longer guarantee their safety and was putting them all on leave until further notice. The wife of LKT's legal adviser, Igor Zazimnik, was killed by a stray bullet on the balcony of her apartment the same day. Two other local TV broadcasters, IRTA and LOT, have also had to suspend operations.
08.07.2014 - Ukrainian TV crew under mortar fire near Luhansk
Roman Bochkala, a reporter for the Ukrainian national TV channel Inter, and his cameraman, Vasyl Menovshchikov, found themselves under mortar fire near Metallist, a village ten kilometres outside Luhansk, on 8 July while covering operations by the Ukrainian army's 30th regiment.
Bochkala broke an arm and tore tendons while scrambling over a 5 or 6 metre embankment in search of shelter. After being treated in a field hospital, he was transferred by helicopter to a hospital in Kharkov. Two soldiers were killed during the mortar bombardment.
05.07.2014 - Masked men attack national daily in Kiev
Around 50 masked men attacked the Kiev headquarters of the Russian-language newspaper Vesti on 5 July, pelting it with stones and setting off teargas before dispersing quickly. Some of them injured a security guard while trying to enter the building. The stones they threw broke windows and damaged computers.
The attack was claimed by Oles Vakhni, an ultra-nationalist who served a six-year jail term on charges of armed robbery and violence. The police said they were treating it as a case of “vandalism.” Vesti owner Igor Guzhva linked it to the demonstration that parliamentarian Igor Lutsenko staged outside the newspaper the week before with the declared aim of “ending the dissemination of anti-Ukrainian propaganda.” Lutsenko said the protest would be “the last peaceful action” against Vesti.
04.07.2014 - Rebels take control of Luhansk regional state broadcaster
Armed rebels in combat fatigues representing the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Luhansk stormed into the headquarters of the Luhansk region's state radio and TV broadcaster on 4 July. After they had taken control of the premises and negotiated with the CEO, Rodyon Miroshnik, all the employees were allowed to leave. One of the rebels said the regional broadcaster's various channels were now “closed” and would remain so until they resumed “under a different format.”
The previous week, local cable TV operators LKT and Triolan dropped most of the Ukrainian TV news channels from what they offer, replacing them with Russian news channels.
02.07.2014 - Two journalists held for two days in Luhansk
Ukrainian citizen TV station Hromadske's well-known reporter, Anastasia Stanko, and her cameraman, Ilya Beskorovayny, were released by representatives of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Luhansk (PRL) on 2 July after being held for two days in Luhansk.
After trying for a long time to obtain PRL accreditation without success, they arrived in Luhansk on 30 June hoping to obtain permission on the spot to do a report there. They were put in touch with a security unit, which promised to protect them in return for financial compensation. But they were arrested by another unit, the NKVD, and were held in the basement of a downtown building. PRL Prime Minister Vasil Nikitin said he suspected them of spying for the Ukrainian army.
Their detention prompted a great deal of concern in both Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked the relevant authorities to do everything they could to obtain their release as quickly as possibly. But it was thanks to the intercession of the heads of Russia's three leading pro-government broadcasters – Pervy Kanal, VGTRK and NTV – that the PRL finally decided to free them. Stanko said that, on the whole, they were treated properly aside from being threatened with decapitation.
01.07.2014 - Two Russian journalists injured in Luhansk region
Denis Kulaga, a staff reporter with Russia's REN-TV, and his cameraman, Vadim Yudin, were treated for shock in a Luhansk region hospital on 1 July after a mortar shell exploded close to them when they were about one kilometre from the Russian border, near the Izvarino border post.
27.06.2014 - Anti-Kiev netizen freed after being held for two days
The young netizen Vlad Alexandrovich was released in Zaporozhye on 27 June, two days after being kidnapped in the city of his birth, Mariupol (in the Donetsk region), where he has been working for Anna News and Southeast Front, two news agencies allied with the anti-Kiev rebels. He is said to have been the author of reports about the Ukrainian army intervention in Mariupol on 9 May. His abductors are thought to have been Ukrainian security officials.
26.06.2014 - Gunmen ransack local newspaper in Torez
Gunmen stormed into the offices of the local newspaper Pro Gorod, in Torez (in the eastern Donetsk region), on 26 June, threatening the journalists present and seizing computers, cameras and other equipment, as well as personal effects and passports. Before leaving, the gunmen warned the journalists of worse reprisals if they continued to distribute the newspaper and post news reports on its website.
Editor Igor Abyzov, who was absent during the raid, said the assailants were clearly familiar with the premises and knew who worked there, looking for some of them in person. He also said the assailants wore St. George ribbons, which the anti-Kiev forces often use to identify themselves.
This was not the first time that Pro Gorod has been targeted. Molotov Cocktails were used to start a fire at the newspaper on 18 April, and Abyzov was physically attacked by two unidentified men on 31 January.
23.06.2014 - Mariopol editor held at anti-terrorism centre for past five days
Reporters Without Borders is concerned about Serhiy Dolgov, the editor of the newspapers Vestnik Pryazovya and Khochu v SSSR (“I want to go to the USSR”), who was abducted from his office in the southeastern city of Mariupol on 18 June. After saying nothing for five days, Sergei Spasitel, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in Mariupol, announced that Dolgov was “alive and in good health” and was being held at an anti-terrorism centre in Zaporozhye.
Dolgov was abducted from the Vestnik Pryazovya office on the afternoon of 18 June by six masked men in civilian dress with automatic weapons, who took all the computers and beat Dolgov before taking him away with his hands tied. His whereabouts and the identity and motive of his abductors remained unknown for five days.
“We firmly condemn the brutality of Dolgov's arrest, which had all the hallmarks of an outright abduction,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We urge the Ukrainian authorities to clarify the situation without delay, to follow legal procedures, and to respect this journalist's rights regardless of his media's editorial policies.”
Dolgov's colleagues think his abduction was linked to his editing of Khochu v SSSR, which mainly publishes historical articles about the Soviet era and which other newspapers in the region recently labelled as a “rebel” publication.
22.06.2014 - Two TV journalists briefly detained in Crimea
Two journalists with Ukraine's Hromadske.TV – reporter Tatyana Kozyreva and camera operator Karen Arzumanyan – were detained for about an hour after trying to do a live report in Nakhimov Square in the Crimean city of Sebastopol on 22 June.
While doing their report in the square, where retirees were staging a demonstration, they were accosted by some of the retirees, who insulted them and accused them of distorting what is going on in Crimea. The police came and took them to a nearby police station in the Lenin district, where they were questioned about their activities and possible links to "extremist groups" and were then released. Kozyreva said the police were reasonable and returned their equipment.
The situation has been particularly difficult for independent and Ukrainian journalists in Crimea since the peninsula's incorporation into Russia. The Russian authorities obstruct their news gathering by, for example, not allowing them to attend press conference. Three TV stations – 5 Kanal, Kanal 24 and Novyi Kanal – have stopped operating in Crimea because of the threats to their reporters.
18.06.2014 - Journalist held overnight by rebels in Donetsk
Aleksandr Peremot, a journalist with the URA-Inform.Donbass news website, was abducted by rebels in Donetsk on the afternoon of 17 June and was held overnight. When detained, he was outside the Donetsk public prosecutor's office, which is occupied by the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk (PRD). His news organization, which had difficulty communicating with the rebels because “it is not accredited with the PRD,” has promised to reveal the details of Peremot's abduction shortly.
17.06.2014 - Pressure on local newspaper in Donetsk region
Maria Semenova, the editor of the Vechernyaya Makeyevka local newspaper, and Larisa Butova, the CEO of the Pressa Makeyevka printing press, were kidnapped by two men in battledress from the newspaper's office in Makeyevka, in the eastern Donetsk region, at around 10 a.m. on 17 June and were taken for a “conversation” with representatives of the PRD, the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, who voiced their discontent with the newspaper's editorial policies. The two women were finally released at around 8 p.m. the same day. The newspaper has so far refused to make any comment but employees said they regarded the abduction as “very serious.”
16.06.2014 - Russian TV journalists held for two days
Two journalists with Russian TV station Zvezda – reporter Yevgeny Davydov and soundman Nikita Konashenkov –, were arrested at a Ukrainian checkpoint on 14 June while on their way to Dnepropetrovsk airport to fly back to Moscow at the end of a reporting trip. Their station is a Russian defence ministry offshoot and they had “People's Republic of Donetsk” accreditation. After being taken to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), they were held for two days on suspicion of spying and then handed over to the Russian embassy's military attaché. Two other Zvezda journalists were arrested a week ago (see below).
16.06.2014 - Ukrainian journalist arrested on Russian border
Anastasia Stanko, a correspondent for the citizen TV station Hromadske, was about to report live from a small cross-border town called Milove (Ukraine) and Chertkovo (Russia) on 14 June when her phone connection was terminated and Russian border guards arrested her on a charge of crossing the border illegally. She was released later the same day.
13.06.2014 - Call for investigation into journalist's torture by soldiers
Reporters Without Borders learned on 13 June that Ukrainian soldiers arrested Anton Vodian, a reporter for the Ukrainian news website Insider, during an identity check in Dolgenkoe, a village in the Kharkov region, on 3 June. They said he was not on their list of “registered” journalists although he had the required accreditation and had notified the anti-terrorism operations press attaché about his trip in advance. The soldiers used torture to interrogate him, tying him up, beating him for four hours and threatening to kill him. On his release the next day, a senior commander said he had been held for “security reasons” during an important phase of an anti-terrorist operation. The head of Insider wrote to the defence ministry demanding an internal investigation into the incident.
09.06.2014 - Two Russian journalists arrested in Donetsk region
Two Russian journalists with “People's Republic of Donetsk” accreditation – Zvezda cameraman Andrei Sushenkov and soundman Anton Malyshev – were arrested at a Ukrainian National Guard checkpoint near the city of Sloviansk on the evening of 6 June. Zvezda is a Russian defence ministry offshoot.
They were hand over to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) for questioning on suspicion of “collecting information on Ukrainian checkpoints.” Released on the night of 8 June and put on a flight to Moscow, they said they were held for two days in a cramped and overheated cell.
09.06.2014 - Constant harassment of local media
Vasyl Serdyukov, a reporter for the local newspaper Serditaya Gazeta, and his photographer son Yevhen Serdyukov were kidnapped and beaten by militiamen in Rubizhne, a city in the Luhansk region, on 8 June. After being taken to the regional government headquarters in Luhansk, they were freed the next day at dawn.
The militia accused them of covering local news in a way that was one-sided and hostile to the separatists. The newspaper's editor denied this categorically. Yevhen Serdyukov had to be hospitalized with concussion and bruising all over his body. The militiamen also confiscated a computer, a (legally registered) hunting rifle and a car from the Serditaya Gazeta office.
The offices of the newspaper Horniak were set on fire at dawn on 6 June in Torez, in the Donetsk region. They had already been ransacked a month ago after the editor refused to comply with “People's Republic of Donetsk” orders.
The newspaper Donetskie Novosti announced on 6 June that it is temporarily suspending operations because of the “tense situation” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Like Vecherny Donetsk, which suspended activities on 2 June following its editor's abduction, Donetskie Novosti is owned by Rinat Akhmetov, an oligarch who recently announced his support for the central Ukrainian government.
28.05.2014 - Rebels hold two Ukrainian journalists for three days
Two Ukrainian journalists who had been kidnapped by anti-Kiev rebels on 25 May at a checkpoint near Shchastye (in the Luhansk region) – Vyacheslav Bondarenko of the Obzor news website and freelance video reporter Maksim Osovski – were finally released on 28 May after being held and mistreated for three days.
The two journalists had been on their way to cover the presidential election in the east of the country for the Ukrainian TV station ZIK. After the rebels found a Ukrainian flag and TV equipment in their car, they were accused of spying and were taken to the SBU building in Luhansk.
While held, they were badly beaten, tortured and threatened with being killed. After their release, they were hospitalized in Kiev with bruises all over their bodies. Bondarenko also had significant lesions. There was little media coverage of their abduction and their release was prematurely reported.
25.05.2014 - Two Russian journalists working for LifeNews freed
Marat Saychenko and Oleg Sidyakin, two journalists working for the Russian pro-government TV station LifeNews, were released on 25 May in Kiev and immediately boarded a flight for Grozny, the capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya.
Viktor Yagun, the deputy head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU),said at a news conference that they had been freed at the request of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In an interview for the Russian newspaper Izvestia, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said he has sent representatives to Kiev after Russian President Vladimir Putin requested the two journalists' release. The ensuing negotiations are said to have been kept secret for security reasons.
Members of the Ukrainian armed forces arrested Saychenko and Sidyakin – along with the rebels they were filming ¬– near Kramatorsk on 18 May. They were subsequently taken to Kiev, interrogated by the SBU and accused of “providing assistance to terrorism.”
24.05.2014 - Russian journalists denied entry
More Russian journalists were refused entry to Ukraine in the run-up to the 25 May presidential election, although they had all the necessary papers. The reason often given was lack of funds or inability to confirm the reason for the visit. The Ukrainian authorities have imposed drastic restrictions on Russian males entering Ukraine.
According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, at least five TV crews and five individual journalists were denied entry from 20 to 24 May.
“Like the Russian authorities in Crimea, the Ukrainian authorities have often used this prior censorship method in the information war exacerbated by the different parties since the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern European and Central Asia desk.
“Journalists must be able to have access to the events they want to cover as part of their work, regardless of their nationality or the editorial line of the media they work for,” Bihr added.
Those denied entry have included Ilya Varlamov, a blogger, and Ilya Azar of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, although both are well known for providing coverage of the “Euromaidan” protests that had nothing in common with the Kremlin's propaganda.
They were turned back on landing in Kiev on 23 May on the grounds of “unconfirmed reason for the visit.” Natalia Suvorova, a reporter for the Russian radio station Kommersant FM, was also recently refused entry.
21.05.2014 - Ukrainian authorities release Russia Today journalist
Graham Phillips, a British journalist who works for the Russian pro-government TV station Russia Today, was released on the evening of 21 May after being arrested the previous day by the National Guard at a border post on the outskirts of Mariupol, in the Donetsk region, and being taken immediately to the headquarters of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in Kiev for interrogation.
Phillips said he was arrested for having a bulletproof vest. The statements by the Ukrainian authorities were contradictory during his detention. Russia Today reported his arrest immediately but the National Guard initially denied it, only to acknowledge it later.
The various parties to the Ukrainian conflict are waging an all-out information war that has been exacerbated by the approach of the 25 May presidential election. The anti-Kiev rebels in eastern Ukraine have been targeting journalists since March. Now the Ukrainian authorities are behaving with growing hostility to journalists working for Russian media.
Two Russian journalists working for the Russian pro-government news website Life News are still being held by the SBU in Kiev. They and the rebel group they were accompanying were arrested by the Ukrainian armed forces on 18 May. The two journalists are accused of assisting the “terrorist” activities of the rebels.
18.05.2014 - Donetsk Republic frees two hostages held by militiamen
Reporters Without Borders is very relieved by the 18 May release of Serhiy Shapoval, a journalist with the Volin'Post news website who was kidnapped in Sloviansk on 26 April and was held hostage for three weeks by the rebels of the self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk in one of the city's government buildings.
Shapoval was interrogated and mistreated while held. The rebels gave him electric shocks, lacerated the palms of his hands and forced him to say on camera that they were peaceful and had no weapons. The Anna News and Donbas Popular Militias TV stations broadcast the videos of his statements. While held, he contacted relatives several times to say he was in Sloviansk but could not leave for the time being.
Ukrainian photo-reporter Milana Omelchuk was also freed on 18 May after being held for nearly two weeks by the rebels of the self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk, who demanded a ransom of 50,000 hryvnia (3,100 euros) for her release on 13 May. With the help of the Open Dialogue Foundation, an NGO, Omelchuk's sister managed to convince the rebels that the family was not able to pay such a large sum. After her release, Omelchuk was hospitalized in Kiev for malnutrition and because the rebels drugged her.
15.05.2014 - TV towers in east – targets and weapons of war
Ukraine's interior ministry announced on 15 May that national armed forces control the broadcasting tower at Kramatorsk (which is 12 km south of Sloviansk, one of the rebel strongholds in the Donetsk region) and denied a local news site's claim that anti-Kiev militiamen seized the tower on 14 May, when retransmission of all TV stations was interrupted.
Ukrainian special forces did however regain control of the television tower at Sloviansk on 14 May. It had been controlled for some time by anti-Kiev rebels, who had interrupted the broadcasting of Ukrainian programmes and replaced them by Russian TV stations.
Control of the region's main broadcast retransmission centres switches between the Ukrainian army and rebel forces in accordance with the success of their operations, resulting in frequent cuts and alternation between Russian and Ukrainian stations. Aside from their strategic importance in the information war, these centres allow the warring parties to mark their territory and project their authority over the local population.
13.05.2014 - Journalist freed after two weeks as hostage in Sloviansk
Reporters Without Borders is very relieved to learn that Yuri Leliavski, a reporter for the Ukrainian TV station ZIK, was released after being held hostage by pro-Russian militiamen for two weeks in Sloviansk, the stronghold of the pro-Russian rebels. Leliavski revealed at a news conference in the western city of Lviv on the evening of 12 May that he was freed on 9 May.
Militiamen arrested Leliavski barely an hour after he arrived in Sloviansk on 25 April, as soon as they realized he was from Lviv. He spent the entire two weeks in the basement of the building of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), now the headquarters of the pro-Russian militias.
12.05.2014 - Kidnapped journalist released
Reporters Without Borders is very relieved to learn that Pavel Kanygin, a reporter for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was freed on the afternoon of 12 May after being kidnapped the previous night in Artemisk, in the Donetsk region. He had managed to send an SMS alert to colleagues during the night but thereafter remained unreachable until his release.
Pro-Russian rebels of the “People's Republic of Donetsk” had confirmed that they were holding Kanygin for spreading “negative” information and for not being accredited with them. In his coverage of the 11 May referendum on self-determination in the Donetsk region for his newspaper and on social networks, Kanygin reported a failure to respect electoral procedures. He said he was hit while being interrogated.
12.05.2014 - Journalist attacked in Kotovsk
Alexander Yaroshenko, a journalist who uses the pen-name of Sergei Levitanenko, was attacked in his home in Kotovsk, near Odessa, on the night of 11 May by masked intruders in camouflage dress, who hit him and throttled him, accusing him of “not liking Putin.”
After escaping, Yaroshenko described the attack as a “murder attempt.” When he subsequently returned to his home, he found that the room containing his work material had been torched. An investigation is under way.
12.05.2014 - Russia Today employee injured
The security situation for journalists is worsening steadily in the east of the country amid an increase in Ukrainian army operations and the emergence of more and more militias. An employee of the Russian TV station Russia Today sustained a gunshot injury during street fighting in Mariupol on 9 May. Russia Today said he was evacuated to Moscow on 12 May in a serious condition.
08.05.2014 - TV crew held for several hours
A crew with the Ukrainian national TV station ICTV were held by pro-Russian rebels at a checkpoint near Slovianks on 8 May. They considered themselves lucky to be freed after being interrogated and threatened for several houses, and stripped of their equipment.
08.05.2014 - Airwaves war
A cable TV supplier was forced to drop all the Ukrainian national TV channels on 8 May at the behest of Valeri Bolotov, the self-proclaimed governor of Luganks and commander of the pro-Russian “army of the southeast,” who threatened to terminate its entire service if it did not comply.
After being threatened physically, the cable operator's employees told clients they had been temporarily forced to drop the Ukrainian channels but pointed out that these channels could still be viewed on its website. After the fight for control of TV retransmission centres, this marks a new phase in the airwaves war being waged by the parties to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
BOGOTA, Colombia — Cesar Florez is often hesitant to answer his phone because there might be another death threat at the end of the line. Sometimes the threat comes in a phone call, other times in a text message or an email. In April, flyers were posted in the restroom stalls at Florez’s workplace, declaring him and his colleagues “permanent military targets.”
Until last month, Florez served as a local president of Sintramienergetica, a labor union in Colombia that represents the employees of Drummond Company, a U.S.-based coal-mining firm, in a country known for some of the world’s most severe violence against union leaders. Florez has been a Drummond employee for 17 years and active in the union for the last 14. Most recently, he worked as a marine operations technician in Drummond’s port near Santa Marta, where its coal is shipped out on barges.
But his position as a union leader has also meant he’s attracted a significant number of threats, including attempts on his life, which happen to spike around labor disputes, he said. In July 2013 the union went on strike, calling for a pay raise and to move from an hourly wage to a salary, among other demands. For 53 days the strike wore on amid tense negotiations, while the threats that Florez and his colleagues received only accelerated.
“They said if we didn’t lift the strike we’d be a target,” Florez said, describing some of the phone calls he received. “They said they already knew where my family was.”
Many of the written threats that Florez received bear the watermark of Los Rastrojos Comandos Urbanos, an active paramilitary group with ties to drug trafficking.
The Center for Public Integrity made numerous attempts to reach Drummond for comment on allegations that it has used the group to try to intimidate Sintramienergetica leaders like Florez; a spokesman said he could not respond to any questions on the matter. In a recent statement, the company’s lawyers asserted, “Drummond has never paid or otherwise assisted any illegal group in Colombia, whether paramilitary or guerilla [sic].”
Nonetheless, Drummond has been named in several lawsuits alleging financial ties to paramilitary groups since the mid-1990s.
Drummond — a closely held company based in Birmingham, Alabama, with revenues that reached $3 billion last year—has helped Colombia become the world’s fourth-largest coal exporter. Heman Drummond started the business in 1935 on the backs of mules that were used to haul loads of coal from its mines in Alabama. Under the leadership of his son, Garry, the company expanded, securing a contract to extract coal in La Loma, in the Cesar Department of Northeast Colombia in the late 1980s.
While its Colombian operations quickly became a significant revenue stream for the company, security issues and labor disputes have always been substantial obstacles for Drummond’s business. And, according to its workers, intimidation has become routine in a country where trade union leaders are often viewed as subversives.
Killings, threats and lawsuits
On March 12, 2001, a bus carrying Drummond workers — including Valmare Locarno, 42, the local affiliate president of Sintramienergetica and Victor Hugo Orcasita, 36, its vice president — left the mine in La Loma at approximately 6:15 p.m. Locarno was on a three-month leave from the company, but according to one account of the event, he had been called to the mine that day for a meeting with management to discuss some of the complaints of the workers. Both Locarno and Orcasita were negotiating new contracts for the union at the time.
Two trucks — one green and one wine-colored — pulled up alongside the bus and intercepted it a short time later as it drove under a passway. Alcides Manuel Mattos, a member of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group who used the alias “Samario” was the first on the bus, according to his account of the incident, and several others filed in behind him. As he moved to the back of the vehicle, another AUC fighter identified Lacorno and pulled him off the bus, shooting him to death in front of his colleagues. Orcasita was driven away in one of the trucks, and taken to “Tolemaida,” the commander of the Juan Andres Alvarez Front of the AUC. He was killed later that night. And Gustavo Soler, who succeeded Locarno as president, was murdered just seven months later, with two gunshot wounds to his head also while on his way home from work.
Nearly 15 years later, these murders remain on the mind of Cesar Florez. The threats against Sintramienergetica’s leaders have only sharpened, he said in an interview in Bogota.
Four lawsuits — three of which are pending — have been filed against Drummond in U.S. courts by human rights lawyer Terry Collingsworth, who also has taken on companies like Dole Foods Inc. and Chiquita Brands International. One alleges that Drummond is responsible for the deaths of the three Colombian union leaders and financially supported the AUC. The case was dismissed, but an appeal was heard last August after ex-paramilitaries testified under Colombia’s Peace and Justice Program. The 2005 law, which was amended the next year, allowed for reduced sentences in exchange for demobilization and a full confession to one’s crimes. Several paramilitaries who had operated in the area made statements under oath against Drummond.
The decision of the appeals panel in Alabama’s 11th Circuit is pending; Collingsworth said he expects a ruling soon and is optimistic about the outcome.
“A win here would absolutely establish that companies will be held accountable and this will have a tremendous effect on future conduct of this sort,” he said. “Up until now, companies assumed that they could literally get away with murder in countries like Colombia.”
A Center review of hundreds of pages of court documents and testimony paints a grim picture of the Cesar Department during one of Colombia’s most brutal periods.
When Drummond began operations in Colombia, the country was still embroiled in a civil war led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Kidnappings and extortion schemes were common, and landowners were heavily affected, as guerrilla activity blocked them from their crops and cattle. Ranchers in the Cesar Department began to form self-protection groups in the early 1990s, but when these groups failed to significantly combat guerrilla troops, an initial 60 paramilitaries were recruited to Cesar from the nascent group that later became the AUC. Between 1996 and 2006, the organization grew into a strong militant force of its own that terrorized the region in its mission to defeat the FARC.
By the mid-1990s, as the AUC began to solidify its ranks, security had already become a major concern for Drummond, as it had for the ranchers. The coal from Drummond’s mine is transported along a 120-mile railroad line from La Loma to the port near Santa Marta — a tranquil tourist town tucked into the northern Caribbean coast of the country. But the railroad line soon became a target because of the valuable load it was carrying. Even today, abandoned houses along the route are riddled with bullet holes.
The 41st front of the FARC attacked the trains with dynamite on multiple occasions. According to a former paramilitary who patrolled the area, palm oil producers would sometimes try to buy the coal illegally from trucks carrying coal along the route as well. Concerns also grew within Drummond’s management over its workers being kidnapped.
Garry Drummond, who is described as both “charismatic” and “brilliant” by men who have worked for him, became desperate to protect his coal, according to testimony. Any delay in shipments could damage the business if he didn’t deliver on valuable contracts that he had secured with European firms.
In May 1995, the company recruited James Lee Adkins for a job as a security advisor. Adkins had worked with the CIA for 20 years but was placed on leave and said he was later forced to retire from the agency for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, in which the U.S. government came under fire for diverting funds from covert weapons sales to Iran, to rebel militant groups in Nicaragua known as Contras. Drummond managers had met Adkins in Miami during a conference on terrorism in 1988, where the actions of the former CIA agent were lauded in a standing ovation.
Shortly after accepting the position with Drummond, Adkins was making regular flights between Colombia and Alabama on a company plane. In Birmingham, he gave presentations to employees on how to keep from being kidnapped and what do to if it happened. In Colombia, Adkins recommended security protocols to protect Drummond’s railroad line. But according to the testimony of several ex-paramilitaries, Adkins also played a key role in a plan to financially support the AUC as a source of protection for the company.
In a deposition, Adkins said he had “no knowledge of such payments” between Drummond and paramilitary groups. His lawyer declined to comment further on the matter. But memos produced as part of the trial reveal that Adkins knew the FARC had accused Drummond of paying paramilitary groups and that he was aware of paramilitaries guarding the railroad line near banana and palm oil properties.
Jaime Blanco, who grew up in a wealthy family in Valledupar, a city in the Cesar Department, won a bid to become the food contractor for Drummond’s dining facility around the time Adkins joined the company in late 1995. The cafeteria later became known as “the casino,” and according to testimony, miners complained about the number of paramilitaries that spent time there. Blanco had close ties to the AUC, including Rodrigo Tovar, a rancher and childhood friend of Blanco who went by the name of “Jorge 40.” By 1997, Jorge 40 rose to become the commander of the AUC’s entire Northern Bloc when several fronts of the groups unified.
According to Blanco’s testimony, Drummond wanted the AUC’s help to secure the railroad line. Blanco went on to allege that he received $10,000 cash payments directly from Adkins when he returned from his trips to Birmingham. The food contractor, he testified, was also told to overcharge for certain items through his company, so that overages could be directed to the AUC. In his deposition, Adkins denied making payments through Blanco and said that the food contract with Drummond was already in place before he had met Blanco.
Contracts awarded to Blanco’s company to provide meals for the workers show a 40 percent increase in the cost of meals over an eight-month period in 1996, while the Consumer Price Index only rose a few percentage points. In his account of events, Blanco says this is one way that money was funneled from Drummond to the AUC.
Still, there are numerous discrepancies between the testimonies of the former paramilitaries. Collingsworth attributes this to the time that has lagged since the original events, while defense lawyers say it is evidence of falsehood.
Lawyers on behalf of Drummond have vehemently denied any connection to paramilitary groups that have operated in the area since the first lawsuit was filed in 2002. And in Adkins’ testimony, he reiterates this and says there was a company policy against funding such groups, despite the security situation at the time.
Blanco is serving a 38-year sentence in connection with the deaths of the union workers after being convicted in January of last year by a Colombian court. He also alleges in his testimony that Drummond directed the AUC to kill the union workers because they were threatening to strike and that this could delay coal shipments. In response to evidence that surfaced in Blanco’s trial, the judge called for an investigation into CEO Garry Drummond and three other managers.
Worker safety concerns
Sintramienergetica workers continue to have serious concerns over pay and worker safety. Fears of death threats and job insecurity for union affiliation remain rampant. While Drummond describes its relationship with the union as a positive one, union members have repeatedly criticized the company’s treatment of its workers.
On March 22, 2009, Dagoberto Clavijo lost control of the tanker truck he was driving, and died after his vehicle slipped off an embankment outside of the mine in La Loma. He was just one month into his job. Sintramienergetica workers in the Santa Marta port and La Loma mine went on strike the next day in protest, calling for safer working conditions and complaining that Clavijo hadn’t received proper training. The strike lasted four days. But Drummond responded by declaring the strike illegal, and Colombia’s Supreme Court later agreed. The company fired 35 workers, nearly all who were a part of the union’s leadership, Florez among them.
With the help of lawyers, Florez had his contract reinstated but was fired once more in 2011. In early June, he lost his appeal and his contract with the company was terminated. He attributes Drummond’s actions to his union activity and the fact that he suffers from heart arrhythmia.
“The sick are always fired,” said Florez. “Drummond has this arrogance. They say, ‘So sue!’ Since they know that the workers are not going to win.”
Anibal Perez, another former member of Sintramienergetica, suffered a work-related accident in May 2009 and today leans on a cane. The ligaments in his right ankle never healed properly as he tried to continue working under the instructions of his supervisor and against those of his doctor. The next month he lost his job anyway. Perez went on to organize the Association of Sick Workers of Drummond Ltd Port of Santa Marta in March of 2010. In testimony, he cited between 8,000 and 10,000 work-related accidents, 25 deaths and 1,500 cases of lung cancer among the employees of Drummond since it began operations in the early 1990s.
Perez said he received death threats after he began advocating for improved conditions and condemned Drummond for its labor and human-rights violations.
After Perez denounced Drummond at a human rights conference in Santa Marta in August 2012, armed men showed up at Perez’s house, warning that now they would really act because he had ignored their previous messages. His wife would find him in a pool of blood, “because they didn’t like snitches or sons of bitches or human rights defenders,” Perez said. After this incident, he sent his family to live in another country; as of March of 2013 he was under government protection.
Although the AUC formally disbanded in 2006, many former groups that have been demobilized have simply re-organized into criminal gangs and go by a different name. The threats continue against labor union leaders across the country, not just for those with Sintramienergetica. According to the National Labor School, an organization based in Medellin that researches labor issues, between 2010 and 2013 alone there were 1,634 threats made against union workers and 139 assassinations. Union leaders contend these numbers likely underestimate the scope of the problem.
Human-rights advocates familiar with the issue see the threats as a means to undermine the collective bargaining power of workers, in order to keep wages low and deny workers’ rights. It seems to be working: The disincentives to joining a union are so strong that for most workers, it’s simply not worth it. A mere 4 percent of Colombian workers boast union affiliation.
Union members and leaders across Colombia told the Center that the government has been negligent in protecting workers and that the problem is so widespread it impedes the true purpose of labor unions.
“Our work has become about defending the lives and safety of our fellow members. So now the fight is not to get paid better wages or rights for workers, but to avoid being killed,” said Edgar Paez, who works on international relations with the food workers union, Sinaltrainal.
While the government offers protection to those who are facing threats through its National Protection Unit under the Ministry of the Interior, there is fierce competition for this limited resource. Many union leaders also complain that the scope of the services is insufficient to protect them.
“They argue that the zone is now at peace and that is not true. In the region where we work and especially where there is union activity, there is a continued presence of paramilitary groups,” said Florez, who was denied protection while serving as one of Sintramienergetica’s leaders.
These problems have not completely escaped the attention of the international community. When the United States signed a Free Trade Agreement with the country in 2006, Congress hesitated to enact the agreement because of Colombia’s poor labor rights record. In response, a Labor Action Plan was signed in 2011 to pressure Colombia’s government to create more protections for unions. It called for a number of criminal justice reforms, as well as outlawing union breaking collectives and temporary service agencies — commonly used tools that undermine the bargaining powers of workers.
Critics have called the plan a tool to ease the consciences of U.S. policymakers rather than provide the teeth Colombia needs to make real adjustments. And a report published last year by U.S. Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Jim McGovern, D-Mass., highlighted the continued obstacles union workers faced.
Gimena Sanchez, a senior researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America says the action plan has helped put a dent in the problems union workers face. “Trade union workers were on the verge of becoming extinct,” she said.
But difficulties remain. “There’s still an enormous amount of pressure to not investigate these cases [of intimidation], because of the economic interests involved and because it would bring to light the true intellectual authors of these crimes,” Sanchez said.
Questions linger about how to mitigate the problem. Some union workers see court cases like the ones Drummond faces in the United States as an important step toward creating greater corporate accountability.
With few other options, the danger of being part of a union remains a necessary sacrifice for some.
“Of course I feel fear,” Florez said. “To not feel fear is to not be human. But we have a duty and a commitment to fight these injustices, and so we put our fate in the hands of God.”