Claudia Julieta Duque | 2010 Courage in Journalism Award

Radio Nizkor, Colombia.

By Marjorie Miller

Claudia Julieta Duque knew that journalists were at risk in Colombia, of course. She had been following current affairs since she was a girl of 14 and thought she understood the risks. But like so many reporters, she wanted to observe history in the making, to live the politics first-hand and write about it.

“I knew they assassinated journalists. Since the 1980s, there have been 140 journalists killed in Colombia. Clearly I knew it was dangerous, yet I never expected to experience this en carne propia– in the flesh. I never thought I would be the victim of so many difficult situations.”

Now, not only does Duque know what it means to be a journalist living under threat, her teenage daughter knows, as well. In the two decades since Duque began her career as an investigative reporter, the 39-year-old winner of this year’s Courage in Journalism Award has been abducted, robbed and threatened with death.

Duque went into exile three times between 2001 and 2008, but on each occasion she returned to continue her work, copying down the license plates of cars that followed her. She tracked at least two to government addresses.

“We have a political system with democratic characteristics. We have elections, though they’re not always transparent. We do not have freedom of expression in Colombia,” Duque said.

“When they realized their terror and scare tactics did not have any effect on me, they went after my daughter,’’ she said.

That failed, too.

Much of Duque’s professional life has been dedicated to the pursuit of a free press and the fight against impunity. Verbal threats against Duque began in 1995 when she was investigating the disappearance of Colombian children for Caracol Radio and Television and Cromos magazine. But the threats escalated into action in 2001 after she began investigating the August 1999 shooting death of Colombian humorist and journalist Jamie Garzon, a killing she has described as “the assassination of freedom of expression in Colombia.”

Duque was leaving a conference on child soldiers at a hotel in the Colombian capital of Bogota when she was abducted in a taxi for three hours, robbed, told to “let the dead rest” and to mind her own business. She moved to Ecuador for 10 months to let things cool off, but when she returned she was advised that she faced grave risk. The government offered her bodyguards for protection.

“I do not hesitate to call Jaime Garzon’s assassination a state crime, not only because active, high-ranking members of the military took part, but because a strategy was devised around his death to let the case go unpunished, with the participation of members of the state security organizations,” Duque said in a speech last year to Rosario University students.

Duque continued to pursue the Garzon case, accusing the government of tampering with evidence. She continued to receive death threats in the form of telephone calls with funeral music and screams of terror. “Other times, someone would just tell me that I was going to die,” Duque said. The pressure mounted and in December 2004, she left again, first for Peru and then Spain.

When she returned in February 2006, the threats resumed against her and her daughter, by then a teenager, in emails signed by the “Aguilas Negras,” a paramilitary group. They were sent to Radio Nizkor, where Duque worked. And in April 2008 she fled the country for a third time after learning that the bodyguards who were supposed to protect her had been spying on her for the government.

Duque is back in Colombia again. Much of the work she and others have done has begun to pay off. The Colombian newsweekly Semana last year published a story that Colombia’s national intelligence service, the Administrative Department of Security, had carried out a spying operation from 2003 to 2009 on journalists, members of the opposition, Supreme Court justices, government officials, union leaders and international human rights groups. Emails and telephone conversations were illegally intercepted and the information was passed on to criminal groups, according to Semana.

Duque had been among the journalists targeted. She obtained the “national security files” files that the DAS kept about her describing how agents were supposed to intimidate her with threats of violence against her daughter.

The Attorney General’s office ordered a search of the DAS headquarters and 10 high-ranking intelligence officials were arrested, including the deputy director, Jose Miguel Narvaez. This year, Narvaez was accused of “masterminding” the killing of Garzon. The late right-wing paramilitary leader Carlos Castano also has been accused in the case.

Duque insists that former President Alvaro Uribe is responsible “by action and omission” for political persecution in Colombia.

“For forty years, armed conflict and drug trafficking have served as an excuse for those in power and for the far-right to treat all opposition as terrorists. There is an espionage mafia, a secret police that has issued threats and tortured. But to say these things in Colombia is dangerous. It’s dangerous to investigate human rights violations,” Duque said.

Last year, a group of 10 men and women tried to break into Duque’s home while she was away but left after unexpectedly encountering her brother there. They were caught on security cameras in the building talking on mobile phones before leaving in four waiting cars, leading human rights activists to believe this was another spying operation rather than a robbery gone awry.

Duque, meanwhile, is pursuing her work as an investigative reporter, digging into topics such as child trafficking, illegal adoptions and the infiltration of paramilitary groups into Colombian state institutions.

“The threats have diminished, but there are still signs, anonymous calls to my mother,” she said.

Claudia Julieta Duque is the third Courage in Journalism Award winner from Colombia, following Maria Jimena Duzan (1990) and Jineth Bedoya Lima (2001).

Marjorie Miller is the foreign policy editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times. She was a board member of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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