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Authorities Suppress Coverage of Protest

Authorities Suppress Coverage of Indigenous Protest

At least one person was killed and more than 130 were wounded during
indigenous demonstrations last week in several departments in Colombia. But
with multiple press freedom violations being committed, you would be
hard-pressed to find out what's going on.

Indigenous community media groups in the department of Cauca complained
recently that several of their websites have been blocked, and a local
community radio station has reported suspicious power outages - at a time
when indigenous communities have been protesting to protect their
fundamental rights, reports the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), IFEX
member in Colombia.

Thousands of indigenous Colombians, mainly in the southwest and northwest,
mobilised last week on a five-point plan. It calls for the reestablishment
of their territorial rights as laid out by the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights, and rallies against the Colombian free-trade deal with the
U.S., Canada and the EU and the increasing militarisation of the country by
the government and paramilitaries.

As part of the protests, indigenous groups blocked several roads last week,
including the Pan-American Highway, the country's main north-south
thoroughfare, in at least four locations between Colombia's third largest
city, Cali, and the city of Popayán, 135 kilometres to the south.

But they were met with a repressive response. Violent clashes broke out
between protesters and security officers on 14 and 15 October, when
officers attempted to reopen the highway, allegedly firing into the crowds
and assaulting them with tear gas and hand grenades. According to the
National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), the clashes have
resulted in one death and more than 130 people injured, many gravely.

On the same day, the websites of the Association of Indigenous Councils of
Northern Cauca (ACIN) and the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), two
of the main organisations that have been mobilising through their own media
channels, went out of service, reports FLIP.

CRIC told FLIP that its website was down for more than 12 hours until staff
temporarily transferred it to another server. CRIC said, "It's very
coincidental that the website crashed at exactly the same time that the
demonstrations began." The websites of both CRIC and ACIN have previously
been down during demonstrations.

Several radio stations had their power cut while they were broadcasting
information about the demonstrations. La Libertad radio station, based in
the municipality of Totoró, says power outages are common in the area.
"However, it appears suspicious to us because this has happened several
times when we are broadcasting this type of information," La Libertad said.

Sources in Cauca told FLIP that they believe the obstruction of the
independent media outlets may be aimed at preventing the dissemination of
allegations of excessive use of force by security forces during the
demonstrations.

Meanwhile, journalists who have been covering the demonstrations have
expressed concern over their safety. "We are in the line of fire," one
journalist told FLIP.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), foreign journalists have been
stopped and questioned and even expelled for "taking part in political
activities". Julien Dubois, a French journalist planning to document the
protests in Cauca Valley, was detained on 13 October, expelled the next day
and banned from Colombia for five years.

Colombia has a long tradition of community, citizen-based media projects
that consistently present an alternative narrative to the corporate media.
They are linked to a broader network of national, alternative media (such
as Indymedia-Colombia and SICO, among others). But as concluded at
International PEN's recent World Congress in Bogotá, their perspectives are
rarely heard through mainstream channels, which often give an unfiltered
voice to the official authorities.

The mass media have been mainly echoing the government's perspective: that
the protests have been infiltrated by "destabilising forces" - the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The accusations have been
denied by protesters.

"The (Álvaro) Uribe government continues to make the unsubstantiated link
in an attempt to avoid any dialogue with the communities. This fact does
not come through in any of the coverage whatsoever, leaving the audience in
a permanent state of being misinformed," said Mario A. Murillo, a respected
professor at Hofstra University in New York, who has been documenting the
protests on his blog in Colombia.

"The government's claims... have almost become conventional wisdom in the
last few days because of the capacity of the Uribe administration to set
the agenda, present its arguments to domestic journalists with indignation
and authority, and come off as the victim once again," he added.

In some respects, the indigenous groups have defied the odds and have been
successful in gathering support on an international level, and getting
other rights groups to take notice. An open letter demanding an
international mission go to Colombia, addressed to Canada's Prime Minister
Stephen Harper, has already garnered more than 150 signatures, including
some from Canada's First Nations groups.

In the meantime, at least 12,000 indigenous people started a march from La
Maria, Cauca to Cali on 21 October to continue to pressure President Uribe
to address their concerns. They have vowed to continue marching to Bogotá
if he doesn't show. Despite talks over the weekend with three ministers and
the promise by Uribe to buy land for the indigenous peoples, there was no
deal made between them and the government.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) recalls that the
protests occur within a general context of grave, systematic and repeated
violations of the rights of indigenous peoples in Colombia. According to
FIDH, in the last month, 29 indigenous persons were killed in the country,
and over the past six years more than 1,240 indigenous persons have been
murdered and at least 53,885 displaced.

ENDS

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