Jineth Bedoya Lima | 2001 Courage in Journalism Award
El Tiempo, Colombia.
On May 25, 2000, Bedoya went to a Bogota-area prison, where she was expecting to interview a paramilitary leader about rumors that she was on his “hit list.” While waiting for the interview, Bedoya was kidnapped at gunpoint, drugged, then brutally beaten and repeatedly raped by her captors. That evening a taxi driver found her in a garbage dump, where she had been left with her hands tied.
She won the award for her reporting on the violent drug wars, after the 2000 kidnapping by groups most likely tied to right-wing paramilitary forces. Following her abduction, Bedoya received many offers of asylum, but after receiving the Courage Award, she turned them all down. The international recognition that came with getting the award “was actually a guiding light for staying in Colombia. It was one of the things that kept me going,” said Bedoya.
The award was big news in Colombia, and when she returned after accepting it in the United States in 2001, Bedoya was hired away from her regional newspaper, El Espectador. Her current employer, El Tiempo, is a national daily with much broader circulation. Bedoya was put in charge of the “law enforcement” team directing coverage of the continuing wars between the FARC guerrillas, the paramilitary groups, the armed forces and the government.
For awhile, it also appeared that the Courage Award might protect Bedoya from more violence. She received a telegram from the boss of the paramilitary forces saying she had nothing to fear from them. The FARC guerrilla chiefs gave her similar assurances. Their assurances weren’t worth much, it turned out.
Bedoya was kidnapped again in early August 2003 by a FARC guerrilla who controlled the hamlet of Puerto Alvira and its 1,100 residents. FARC got a foothold in that region in 1996 and brought in coca crops. It now owns the land, collects taxes and controls labs to manufacture cocaine. Bedoya had gone to Puerto Alvira to tell the story of how it had been taken over by guerrillas in 2002 and held for more than a year. Some 70 families had disappeared in the FARC takeover and the entire village had been forced into cocaine production.
Bedoya and a photographer cleared the military checkpoint for the region but, after a six-hour boat trip, they had a rude shock when they arrived at the hamlet. “The guerrilla man in charge told us we had no business being there … got really incensed, ordered our kidnapping,” said Bedoya. “We were stripped of our cameras and our clothing and locked up in a house.” The FARC guerrilla told the villagers not to feed them or let them contact anyone. That would have been hard, anyway, since the only communication into or out of the village was by radio.
“I was very much aware that when a guerrilla gets hold of you, you don’t go back home,” said Bedoya.
The local priest told them that he had heard the guerrilla was planning to take them to the forest and kill them. Villagers tried, but failed, to enlist help from the Red Cross. The FARC guerrilla had recently burned the Red Cross boat as a warning to stay away from the village, and apparently his warning had worked.
The woman who housed them, however, defied the guerrilla and fed them. Other villagers went in search of the regional FARC commander, who appeared on their sixth day of captivity and freed them. He said their imprisonment was all a mistake and against FARC policy. He also offered to reimburse the two hostages for loss of money, cameras and other equipment.
“We didn’t accept his apologies,” said Bedoya. “I said I would never accept help from the guerrillas.”
Back in Bogota, Bedoya wrote a lengthy story about “how people live in an area like this, which is controlled by the guerrillas.”
“The gist was all the pressures the villagers were under and that the government is not paying attention to them,” she said. She protected the villagers by giving few details about who helped her, recognizing that “the real danger for them is not the regional chief but the local chief. He’s very bloody, a murderer, and he treats them very badly.”
Bedoya is also realistic about why the villagers helped her. She believes that they were also protecting themselves by getting journalists safely off their turf. If a FARC guerrilla had killed two journalists in Puerto Alvira, “the government would have sent in troops. Then it would have been even more bloody,” said Bedoya.
As traumatizing as the second kidnapping was for her, Bedoya resists labeling herself “courageous.”
“Courage is something that is very subjective. We can be courageous in certain circumstances and become real cowards in others. This is my life. I love what I do. I go to the jungle on many trips to cover military opportunities. I know there is a chance of not coming back. There are fears. These are not personal fears, but more about my family and things that depend on me,” she said. “And there are millions who read my work. This is my contribution to society.”
Journalists are still targets of the warring factions in Colombia and Bedoya is trying to change that situation. “Armed groups believe that the press is part of the conflict, that reporters work for bourgeoisie media groups, who have the power and money in Colombia,” she said.
Bedoya is involved in Bogota with what she describes as a “circle of journalists.” She founded the group to try and educate the public, the government, the guerrillas and the paramilitary warring forces about the role of an independent media.
The group is asking for guarantees from all sides to be able to “work freely and obtain information,” said Bedoya. “We have basically been raising awareness,” she said. They have also been resisting pressure from the government, which would like the group to be a “spokesman” for its offensive against the guerrillas.
“[The guerrillas] see the press as their enemy. They believe the press is behind the pressure on Colombia from the United States,” said Bedoya.
Even though she admits “some days are still very difficult, when I remember what happened to me,” Bedoya also said that the Courage Award gave her more courage to continue reporting. Now 30, she said her role models are older Colombian journalists. “They take their work very seriously, both men and women. … Those who died became sources of inspiration. They gave their lives for the sake of information.”
Jineth Bedoya Lima is the second Courage in Journalism Award winner from Colombia, following Maria Jimena Duzan (1990). In 2010, Claudia Julieta Duque (2010) became the third journalist from Colombia honored with the Courage in Journalism Award.