(New York, NY) — The recent news that a Colombian National Protection Unit security detail tasked to protect journalist Claudia Duque has, instead, been illegally surveilling and stalking her exposes the imminent danger that independent journalists in Colombia face for their work, PEN America said today. The illegal surveillance of Duque continues a decades-long campaign of persecution, underscores the urgency of defending a free press, and casts doubt on the Colombian government’s efforts to protect journalists.

“The Colombian government has deeply failed Duque, her family, and all independent journalists by putting Duque’s life at risk under the guise of protection,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “This continued persecution lays bare the Colombian government’s grave failure in upholding freedom of the press and of expression, as retaliatory attacks against journalists have been well-documented. Since 2001, journalist Claudia Duque has been subjected to smear campaigns, psychological torture, and even kidnapping. We call on Colombian authorities to investigate the National Protection Unit’s surveillance practices; end such illegal surveillance, including the removal of GPS in vehicles transporting Duque; and take meaningful measures to properly protect the safety of Duque and all journalists living in Colombia.”

On October 25, 2021, the executive director of Colombia-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) wrote a complaint to the director of the National Protection Unit, Alfonso Campo Martínez, denouncing the illegal surveillance and collection of extensive data—over 25,000 records—tracking Duque’s movements over a six-month period. The Colombian government, in particular the now-defunct Department of Administrative Security (DAS), first began its harassment of Duque in 2001, after she reported on the cover-up of the 1999 murder of political humorist Jaime Garzón, carried out by the DAS. Over the course of a decade, the DAS kidnapped and repeatedly threatened Duque; surveilled her telephones and emails; accessed her bank accounts; spied on her, her family members, and friends; and threatened her daughter with rape and murder. At times, this state-run persecution has led Duque to seek safety in temporary exile. Duque exposed the DAS’s violent and illegal tactics, resulting in its shutdown by the Colombian government and the convictions of three high-ranking officers. Five of the former officials involved, however, walked free as the courts drew out the proceedings and did not prosecute them in time. Former high-ranking DAS officials continued harassing Duque after its formal closure in 2011.

In 2019, Duque was a PEN America World Press Freedom Day Fellow, invited to share her experiences reporting in the face of severe persecution at UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day. Duque is one of several Colombian journalists under imminent danger of physical and sexual assault for their reporting, which international governing bodies have ruled are a result of the Colombian state’s inaction. On October 19, 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Colombian state bears responsibility for the rape, torture, and kidnapping of journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima by paramilitaries in 2000.