Colombia Liable for Journalist’s Murder
In Landmark Decision, IACHR Condemns Colombian State for Journalist Nelson Carvajal’s Murder
As a journalist and regional radio station director in the town of Pitalito, Colombia, Nelson Carvajal brought corruption by local government and businessmen to light, continuing to investigate and ask probing questions despite multiple threats to his life. In 1998, a hit man shot and killed Nelson before riding off on a motorcycle.
Amid a background of frequent attacks against journalists and indications that the crime was committed by criminal groups allied with local authorities, the investigation into Nelson's murder has been plagued with irregularities and gross negligence. The main suspects in his murder were absolved many years ago, witnesses were killed, and prosecutors left the case after receiving threats. To this day, the people responsible for Nelson’s murder have not been brought to justice, and several members of his family were forced to flee the country, seeking asylum elsewhere after facing constant death threats in Colombia.
Why is this a key case?
Nelson Carvajal’s case represents landmark progress: It marks the first time the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned a state for the murder of a journalist targeted for their work.
The murder of journalists in Colombia—and impunity for its perpetrators—is rampant. Between 1977 and 2015, 152 journalists were killed in the country. In 2017, Latin America and the Caribbean was the world’s most dangerous region to work as a journalist. When journalists are murdered, the corruption they seek to bring to light remains in the shadows. But the act also has the chilling effect of self-censorship because other journalists fear for their own lives and those of their families.
“That is a first step, but it must not be the last,” said RFK Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy. “Next, the government must investigate the case and assure that those responsible for Nelson Carvajal’s murder are identified and punished. The government must ensure that human rights defenders and journalists are effectively protected. This is the only way to repair the fabric of society and rebuild trust in state institutions, trust in the administration of justice and trust in the government’s will to ensure that the voices that speak truth to power, just as Nelson did during his lifetime, are protected from those that have an interest in silencing them.”
How Has RFK Human Rights Supported Nelson’s Case?
Along with the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), RFK Human Rights represented Nelson’s family in the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, resulting in a judgment holding the Colombian state responsible for Nelson’s death, for failing to guarantee his right to freedom of expression, and for failing to duly investigate his murder and punish the perpetrators.
What is the Status of the Case?
The court ruled in favor of Nelson’s family in March 2018. To date, the Colombian state has engaged in partial compliance with the judgment. The state paid reparations to Nelson’s family for material and moral damages and held a public ceremony in which it formally apologized and recognized responsibility for its role in Nelson’s death. However, progress in the state’s criminal investigation into the murder remains minimal.
Name of the case (as it appears in the respective legal mechanism)
Carvajal Carvajal et al. v. Colombia
Month/Year of filing
June 2002 (RFKHR joined as a co-counsel in 2015)
Legal mechanism in which the case is being litigated
Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Rights and legal instruments alleged violated (OR found to have been violated)
Articles 1.1 (obligation to respect rights), 4 (right to life), 5 (right to humane treatment), 8 (right to a fair trial), 13 (freedom of thought and expression), 19 (rights of the child), 22 (freedom of movement and residence), and 25 (right to judicial protection) of the American Convention on Human Rights.
Supervision of compliance with Judgment
RFKHR and Inter-American Press Association (IAPA)