By Alex Baumhardt Posted May 16 2012
“First of all, you have to believe in what you do.” — Jineth Bedoya
Jineth Bedoya is a petite and courageous investigative journalist in Colombia. She has been attacked multiple times for reporting on drug and arms trafficking in the Colombian Civil War, yet she speaks with a smile and strong voice.
In 2000, Bedoya was investigating a story on arms trafficking for the Bogota newspaper El Espectador when she was seized, drugged, tortured and raped by three men from a paramilitary group. The men who abducted her ordered her to pay attention; she was supposed to be a warning message to the press in Colombia. She was tied up and left in a garbage pile near a road until she crawled out and was discovered by a taxi driver.
Yet Bedoya continued to report. She brought her case to the Attorney General of Columbia. It stalled for 11 years, so she appealed it to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In May 2011, one of the paramilitary soldiers involved in her attack was arrested.
In 2003, Bedoya covered law enforcement for the newspaper El Tiempo. She traveled to a town about 200 miles southeast of Bogota, where citizens were forced to produce cocaine. The leader of a Guerilla group ordered Bedoya and her photographer to be kidnapped upon arrival. The two were stripped of all clothing and possessions. The leader demanded the townspeople not feed or speak to the journalists. Instead, locals brought the journalists food and alerted a higher-ranking Guerilla leader of their capture. The journalists were then freed.
Bedoya returned to Bogota and wrote a story about the experience.
Today, Bedoya continues to work as a journalist for El Tiempo. In 2001, she was awarded the Courage In Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation. In 2012 she was awarded the International Women of Courage Award, presented by the U.S. Department of State to women around the world who show leadership, courage, resourcefulness and sacrifice to promote women’s rights.
Global Journalist: What do you think is the biggest difference between the challenges Colombian journalists face and those U.S. journalists face?
Jineth Bedoya: The thing is, Colombia is a country in conflict; the armed conflict has been going on for 50 years now, the oldest on the continent. There are paramilitary groups and the most powerful drug trafficking networks in the world here. So there are all kinds of risks.
GJ: Who typically reports these stories?
Bedoya: I think there are different strata of conflicts. It depends also on the level of involvement the U.S. may or may not have in those conflicts. In the case of Colombia, we’ve gotten quite a bit of assistance from the U.S. government. That makes the conflict more visible, so many eyes are on Colombia.
GJ: What would you say is the state of free speech and free press in the country?
Bedoya: Fortunately, we are a country that respects the freedom of expression. The unfortunate thing is that when someone doesn’t like something that you publish, the way they deal with it is by threatening you.
GJ: And that has happened to you a lot?
GJ: When you were attacked by a paramilitary group in 2000, what made you return to journalism?
Bedoya: At that time I was reporting and writing an article on weapons trafficking that paramilitaries were conducting within a jail, and they are the ones who kidnapped me. In spite of that, I had the opportunity to leave because there were offers of political asylum or to go somewhere as a refugee, but I believed — and I continue to believe — that my responsibility is in my country and not outside of it.
GJ: What do you hope for female journalists in Colombia in the future?
Bedoya: I wish there were more women in leadership positions. There are very few of us who are chiefs and there are very few women doing investigative journalism.
GJ: Because it is so dangerous?
Bedoya: Yes, and I understand the risks. I have an armed vehicle and four bodyguards. But I think it’s a big challenge to understand the social commitment to our country, and I would love it if Colombian journalists understood that they have a social commitment.
GJ: Are the dangers you face in Columbia similar to those faced by other South American journalists?
Bedoya: Yes, no doubt. The most critical problem right now is in Mexico and Central America. Due to the drug trade and the dimension this has taken on, it means journalists in Latin America face more risks.
GJ: Are there reasons why female journalists might not want to speak out if they’ve been attacked?
Bedoya: They don’t say anything because they think they won’t be allowed to cover certain stories afterwards. In their newsrooms they’ll be seen as inappropriate for covering certain stories. They’ll be seen as weak, and it will be thought that they are better off covering lighter news and not something like the war in Afghanistan.
GJ: What do you say to those who express that fear?
Bedoya: That I think the best business card you can show to say, “I can do it,” is your own work. If people know that you’re capable, that you can take risks, that you can do your work in spite of these risks, then they’ll never say “No.”
GJ: What are your fears about covering high-risk issues?
Bedoya: There’s always fear. I think it’s like artists when they go onstage. The day you no longer fear something is because it’s no longer worth it. Because fear is the counter-balance on the scale. Fear helps you verify, reflect and not feel above anything or anyone.
GJ: Do other journalists who have been through similar experiences come to you for advice?
Bedoya: Women, just common women, yes. But journalists? No. It’s very hard for them to admit it.
GJ: What is your advice to journalists who want to do investigative work in tumultuous areas?
Bedoya: First of all, you have to believe in what you do because I know journalists who are only doing their job to earn a paycheck. I think that a basic thing is when you’re going to cover areas that are tumultuous or there is conflict, you need to research beforehand what the area is like. You need to know the people and what kind of culture you might come up against. And take basic security measures, which is something I hardly ever do, but it’s something fundamental.
GJ: Since the incident in 2000, how has your life changed during the past 12 years?
Bedoya: Completely. My life took a 180-degree turn. My life ended on May 25, 2000, and I had to come back to life. It’s been an entire process, a painful one, but here we are.