Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Violence and harassment, as well as the criminalization of libel, inhibited freedom of the press, and the government frequently influenced the press, in part through its large advertising budgets. The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.
Violence and Harassment: According to the domestic NGO Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), through August 30, there were 153 threats against journalists, doubling the 61 threats registered throughout 2014 and exceeding the 129 documented in 2017. FLIP also reported that between January and August, one journalist was illegally detained, 13 were physically assaulted, and 26 were victims of judicial harassment based on defamation and slander. As of July the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office was investigating 51 active cases of crimes against journalists and had obtained eight sentences.
As of June 30, the National Protection Unit (NPU) provided protection services to 168 journalists. Some NGOs raised concerns about perceived shortcomings in the NPU, such as delays in granting protection and the appropriateness of measures addressing specific threats.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: FLIP alleged some journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of being sued under libel laws or of being physically attacked, mostly by nongovernment actors. FLIP argued the high degree of impunity for those who committed aggressions against journalists was also a factor.
Libel/Slander Laws: By law slander and libel are crimes. There is no specific law against slandering public officials, and the government did not use prosecution to prevent media from criticizing government policies or public officials. Political candidates, businesspersons, and others, however, publicly threatened to sue journalists for expressing their opinions, alleging defamation or libel. FLIP reported 66 cases were filed against journalists for libel or slander as of August 30, including two new cases filed during the year.
Nongovernmental Impact: Members of illegal armed groups sought to inhibit freedom of expression by intimidating, threatening, kidnapping, and killing journalists. National and international NGOs reported local media representatives regularly practiced self-censorship because of threats of violence from these groups.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Due to the general climate of violence and impunity, self-censorship occurred both online and offline, particularly within rural communities.
The 2016 investigation continued into past abuses by the Army Intelligence Unit (see section 1.f.).
The International Telecommunication Union estimated that 62 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Some NGOs alleged that riot police (Esmad) used excessive force to break up demonstrations. For example, on December 14, media reported eight students were injured as a result of confrontations between student protesters and the Esmad in Popayan. An unknown number of police officers were also injured.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Freedom of association was limited by threats and acts of violence committed by illegal armed groups against NGOs, indigenous groups, and labor unions.
Although the government does not prohibit membership in most political organizations, membership in organizations that engaged in rebellion against the government, espoused violence, or carried out acts of violence, such as FARC dissidents, the ELN, and other illegal armed groups, was against the law.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although there were exceptions. Military operations and armed conflict in certain rural areas restricted freedom of movement.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
According to media reports, on August 31, the navy intercepted a vessel with 22 migrants from Bangladesh, Cameroon, Cuba, Gambia, India, and Pakistan, in the Gulf of Uraba, adjacent to the country. The migrants, who allegedly were bound for Central America, were turned over to the Migration Directorate, the government’s migration monitoring and control authority. The Migration Directorate reported that during 2017, 2,254 Indian citizens, 567 Nepalese, and 510 Bangladeshis were identified as being illegally in Colombia; 554 came from Africa.
In-country Movement: There were no government restrictions on movement within the country. Organized-crime gangs, ELN guerrillas, and other illegal armed groups continued to establish illegal checkpoints on rural roads.
International organizations also reported that illegal armed groups confined rural communities through roadblocks, curfews, car bombs at egress routes, and IEDs in areas where narcotics cultivation and trafficking persisted. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), between January and October, more than 1,037,491 persons faced mobility restrictions that limited their access to essential goods and services due to armed incidents and geographical factors. This reflected a 750 percent increase compared with the same period in 2017. Additionally, OCHA identified 56 events in which humanitarian actors and international organizations faced restrictions in access to communities by armed groups.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
There were approximately 7.6 million IDPs in the country, largely a result of the armed conflict. Threats posed by illegal armed groups drove internal displacement in remote areas as well as urban settings. In some areas the FARC withdrawal resulted in a struggle for control by other illegal armed groups causing violence and internal displacement. The government, international organizations, and civil society groups identified various factors driving displacement, including threats, extortion, and physical, psychological, and sexual violence by illegal armed groups against civilian populations, particularly women and girls. Competition and armed confrontation among and within illegal armed groups for resources and territorial control and confrontations between security forces, guerrillas, and organized-crime gangs, in addition to forced recruitment of children or threats of forced recruitment, were also drivers of displacement. Drug trafficking, illegal mining, and large-scale commercial ventures in rural areas also contributed to displacement. Local institutions lacked the capacity in many areas to protect the rights of, and provide public services to, displaced persons and communities at risk of displacement, and as such the government struggled to provide adequate protection or humanitarian assistance to IDPs.
OCHA reported that 30,068 persons had been affected in 103 displacement events between January and October. Approximately 45 percent of the individuals affected were of Afro-Colombian and indigenous origin. Departments with the highest rate of mass displacements included Antioquia, Cordoba, Choco, Narino, and Norte de Santander.
As of July the NPU was providing protection services to 330 land-restitution leaders.
The Victims’ Unit maintained the Single Victims Registry as mandated by law. Despite improvements in the government registration system, IDPs experienced delays in receiving responses to their displacement claims because of a large backlog of claims built up during several months, lack of the unit’s presence in territory, and other constraints. Government policy provides for an appeals process in the case of refusals.
The ELN and organized-crime gangs continued to use force, intimidation, and disinformation to discourage IDPs from registering with the government. International organizations and civil society expressed concern over urban displacement caused by violence stemming from territorial disputes between criminal gangs, some of which had links to larger criminal and narcotics-trafficking groups.
The Victims’ Unit cited extortion, recruitment by illegal armed groups, homicides, and physical and sexual violence as the primary causes of intraurban displacement. UNHCR reported that in some departments displacement disproportionately affected indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups.
According to OCHA, 15 percent of the 30,068 persons affected by displacements were indigenous.
The NGO National Association of Displaced Afrodescendants (AFRODES) stated that threats and violence against Afro-Colombian leaders and communities continued to cause high levels of forced displacement, especially in the Pacific Coast region. OCHA reported that approximately 29 percent of the individuals affected by displacement events were Afro-Colombian. AFRODES and other local NGOs expressed concern that large-scale economic projects, such as agriculture and mining, contributed to displacement in their communities.
By law 52 government agencies are responsible for assisting registered IDPs.
Dozens of international organizations, international NGOs, and domestic nonprofit groups, including the International Organization for Migration, World Food Program, ICRC, UNHCR, and Colombian Red Cross, coordinated with the government to provide emergency relief and long-term assistance to displaced populations.
International organizations and NGOs remained concerned about the slow and insufficient institutional response to displacement. As a result, NGOs took responsibility for providing humanitarian assistance to recently displaced individuals. International organizations and civil society reported that a continuing lack of local capacity to accept registrations in high-displacement areas often delayed assistance to persons displaced individually or in smaller groups. Humanitarian organizations attributed the delays to a variety of factors, including the lack of personnel, funding, declaration forms, and training. Insecurity in communities affected by the conflict, including areas in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Choco, Narino, and Norte de Santander, sometimes delayed national and international aid organizations from reaching newly displaced populations.
Despite several government initiatives to enhance IDP access to services and awareness of their rights, in many parts of the country municipalities did not have the resources or capacity to respond to new displacements and provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Many IDPs continued to live in poverty in unhygienic conditions and with limited access to health care, education, shelter, and employment.
Displaced persons also sought protection across international borders. UNHCR previously stated that Colombia was the country of origin for 360,000 refugees and persons in a refugee-like situation, the majority in Ecuador, with additional populations in Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Panama. UNHCR estimated that between 400 and 500 Colombians crossed into Ecuador every month. The governments of Colombia and Ecuador continued to meet throughout the year regarding the situation of Colombian refugees and asylum seekers in Ecuador, and the Colombian government offered a program to assist Colombians abroad who returned to Colombia. Additionally, the government estimated that 300,000 Colombians, many of whom were displaced by the conflict in Colombia and registered as refugees in Venezuela, returned to Colombia from Venezuela during the year.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. According to the government, it had approved 47 applications for refugee status since 2009. Between January 1 and October 2, the government reported it received 1,258 new asylum-seeker cases for refugee status, of which three cases were approved. Venezuelans represented approximately 95 percent of applications during the year. Authorities stated that the asylum process took at least one year, during which solicitants were given a permit to stay in the country but were not allowed to work.
During the year there was a large increase in migration flows from Venezuela. According to the Migration Directorate, as of October the country hosted more than one million Venezuelans. While the government generally provided access to the asylum process for persons who requested international protection, many opted for alternative migration status, due to the slow processing time of asylum applications.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary residence permits (PEP) to Venezuelans who met certain eligibility requirements. Approximately 180,000 Venezuelans who entered with passports legally were granted PEPs prior to February, when the program was discontinued. In June the government announced that 442,462 irregular Venezuelans who participated in the government’s census exercise would be eligible for PEPs until December 2. As of November approximately 255,000 of the 442,462 Venezuelans eligible for PEPs had requested the residence permit, and other Venezuelans were in the registration process. A new registration period for the PEP was announced December 27. PEPs provide access to work permits, access to the social insurance system, and the ability to open bank accounts. The temporary residency permit is valid for up to two years.