Medida Cautelar 309/18 – Efraín Segarra, Abril Paúl Rivas Bravo, Javier Ortega Reyes (Ecuador & Colombia)/ Mecanismo Especial de Seguimiento (ESE)
Commissioners: Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño; Flávia Piovesan; Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression; Francisco Eguiguren
Petitioners: Fundamedios, Ecuador; Galo Ortega Minda
States: Ecuador, Colombia
On December 6, 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) convened a special follow-up hearing for Precautionary Measure 309/18 regarding the kidnapping and murder of a journalist and his team between March and April of 2018. The IACHR received the initial request for precautionary measures on April 10, 2018 and reported a decision in Resolution 25/2018 on April 12, 2018. The Resolution requested the Governments of Colombia and Ecuador adopt necessary measures to protect the lives of the kidnaped team; ensure that those engaged in journalistic activities may exercise their right to freedom of expression “without being subjected to acts of intimidation, threats, or other acts of violence”; and inform the IACHR about the governments’ investigations of the alleged events in March and April of 2018. The Resolution also implemented a special follow-up team, known by its Spanish acronym, ESE. The purpose of the special follow-up hearing was to discuss and review actions taken after each State adopted the precautionary measure, assess each State’s compliance, and examine the effectiveness of the ESE.
The hearing was held in two subsequent parts, with representatives from Fundamedios, a local organization which advocates for journalistic freedom, and the families of the murdered journalist team present at both parts. Representatives from the State of Ecuador were present at the first half of the hearing, and representatives from the State of Colombia were present at the second half of the hearing. The main purpose of the meeting with the State of Ecuador was to evaluate the ESE in investigating the incident and decide whether further steps should be taken. The main purpose of the meeting with the State of Colombia was to gather information and evaluate the work of a special tracking team implemented by the Government of Colombia, whose role is to investigate the kidnappings and murders of the Ecuadorian journalist team. Furthermore, this meeting served to hear a petition by the relatives of the victims.
Reporter Javier Ortega Reyes, photographer Paúl Rivas Bravo, and driver Efraín Segarra Abril employed by the Ecuadorian newspaper “El Comercio” were kidnapped on or around March 26, 2018 along the border between Ecuador and Colombia by an armed group associated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) known as “Oliver Sinisterra.” The request which the IACHR received in April 2018 demanded that the IACHR require Colombia and Ecuador to adopt precautionary measures to protect the lives of the journalist team, to preserve and protect the right to freedom of expression, and to provide information about investigations of the alleged incident. The ESE, had four major goals: 1) to advise and monitor the investigation of the kidnappings, 2) to establish a care plan for the relatives of the three journalists, 3) to advise and monitor the states’ obligations, and 4) advise and support the states’ structural changes to avoid further violence against journalists. The deaths of Javier Ortega Reyes, Paúl Rivas Bravo, and Efraín Segarra Abril were confirmed after Resolution 25/2018 was decided. The focus of the ESE then became investigating their deaths and providing support for their families and other journalists operating in the region.
Commissioners Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, Flávia Piovesan, and Francisco Eguiguren were present at the special-follow up hearing. They were accompanied by Edison Lanza, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. Commissioner Arosemena de Troitiño, also serves as Rapporteur of the IACHR for Ecuador and oversees the Special Follow-up Team for Precautionary Measure 309/18 (the ESE).
The family members of the journalist team argued that Ecuador has impeded the effectiveness of the ESE and not fulfilled its state obligations. Galo Ortega Minda, Mr. Ortega’s sister argued that even though the intended beneficiaries of the ESE had been killed, the Colombian and Ecuadorian governments were failing to fulfill their duties to protect the victims’ families as well as other journalists in similar situations. Ricardo Rivas, Mr. Rivas’s brother, stated that there has been impunity for the government officials who were not effective in preventing the murders. Additionally, he expressed his concern that Ecuador did not have systems, beyond a group WhatsApp message, in place to effectively protect journalists and that the situation has not improved following the murders. He concluded by arguing that Ecuador has squandered an opportunity to show the world that they take violence against journalists seriously.
The representatives from the office of the Attorney General of Ecuador responded that the government has fully cooperated in the ESE and that the families should put their trust in the national judiciary going forward. The representative stated that the kidnapping, holding, and murder of the journalists took place entirely in Colombia and thus they hoped that Colombia would be more proactive in the investigation process. They also outlined new policies which the government has implemented to protect journalists, such as a curfew in certain areas, new accreditation procedures so that there is a more complete record of who is operating on the border, and increased coordination between the state and police in the border region. The representatives concluded with their requests: that ESE conclude by December 31, that public funds which are allocated to the ESE should be used responsibly, that a final report be drafted by January 2019, and finally that Precautionary Measure 309/18 be lifted after the report is completed.
The representatives from the families of the journalist team also commenced the second meeting with the State of Colombia. The brother of Mr. Rivas reminded the Colombian representatives that the team was murdered on Colombian soil, and that the families have still not received any information about the Colombian investigation into the killings. He demanded more transparency from the Colombian government and law enforcement, given the possibility that the Colombian government might be partially responsible for the murder. He further demanded the repatriation of their family members’ bodies to Ecuador and a firm commitment to improve relations between prosecutors in both countries and for full compliance with for journalists. The sister of Mr. Ortega also argued that the Colombian and Ecuadorian prosecutors must cooperate to fully investigate the events of March to April 2018 and reiterated the possible involvement of state agents in the abductions, tortures, and murders. She also argued that both States must permanently adopt the provisions of the Precautionary Measure, with mechanisms to avoid impunity and repetition of these heinous crimes.
A representative for Colombia denied attempts to veil the investigations and asserted that the government has remained in full compliance with the American Convention on Human Rights and other treaties. The representative also emphasized that a technical team is in constant contact with the state on the progress of the investigation run by the Hercules Task Force, a joint military and police task force. The representative did not provide further detail on the nature of the technical team. Then, the National Director of Organized Crime, and delegate for the Prosecutor General of Colombia, spoke on the actions taken in the investigation of the illegal armed group. The National Director confirmed that the kidnapping occurred in Ecuador, but that the victims were moved over the border and killed in Colombia. The illegal armed group which committed the kidnapping and murder is a faction dissident group called FARC-EP, which did not comply with the peace deal between FARC and Colombia. Colombian medical examiners confirmed that the victims were killed with a nine-millimeter gun made in Peru. The Colombian prosecutor’s office also asserted their willingness to cooperate with Ecuador prosecutors. Finally, a representative from the National Ministry of Defense commented on the Hercules Task Force and emphasized that the task force has been very successful, having already destroyed eighteen drug labs. The representative then commented that although the precautionary measure will guarantee freedom of expression, there is no connection between these murders and the exercise of journalism or journalist activities. The families of the victims responded that the journalists were present at the border because of their duties as journalists, and so there is a relevant connection to the exercise of journalism. They added that they had previously asked Colombia for access to and documentation of the investigation and cooperation with the Ecuadorian prosecutors, but that they had not received either.
The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression responded to the statements made by the representatives from the families and from Ecuador. He noted that this Precautionary Measure is novel but extremely important. He emphasized that the investigation must be exhaustive and chastised Ecuador for not giving the ESE access to the documents they need to complete their mandate without difficulty. Going forward, he hoped to bring both Ecuador and Colombia together to fulfill the ESE’s mandate. In her closing remarks, Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño asked the Colombian representatives about their cooperation with Ecuador and how the investigation was conducted. The victims’ attorney argued that there has been a lack of cooperation and that no one wants to take responsibility, but the threat originated in Colombia. The Colombian prosecutor’s office argued that there has been cooperation between both states’ prosecutors and that once an indictment is submitted their office could release all non-confidential information. The prosecutor then argued that the investigation revealed the Ecuadorian government refused to make a hostage exchange for criminals held in Ecuador, resulting in the executions of the journalist team; therefore, the deaths were a result of actions taken by the Ecuadorian government, and not the team’s identity or duties as journalists.
Though Ecuador hopes the mandate of the precautionary measure will be completed soon, and Colombia believes their investigation will soon result in legal consequences, the families and the Commission anticipate more investigation. The Commission expressed confidence that the precautionary measure will continue to be supported by both Colombia and Ecuador, committed to scheduling another follow-up on the precautionary measure, and will provide further assistance to Ecuador and the families members of the victims.