2021 Shortlist

Risk maps: threats against communitarian leaders and Human Rights defenders in Colombia

Country/area: Colombia

Organisation: La Paz en el Terreno, Rutas del Conflicto, Colombia2020 – El Espectador

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 8 May 2020

Credit: Juan Gómez, Silvia Corredor, Valeria Arias, Carlos Mayorga, Nicolás Sánchez, Natalia Pinilla, Alejandro Ballesteros

Project description:

After the Peace Agreement between the Colombian Government and the former FARC guerilla in 2016, thousands of communitarian leaders have been killed, threatened and prosecuted for defending Human Rights and the Peace Agreement implementation, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the inefficiency of the security measures granted by the Government, we, alongside these communitarian leaders, are building risk maps which warn of the dangers around their social work in the most violent regions of the country and point to urgent actions to mitigate that systematic violence.

Impact reached:

Beside the fact that these maps have raised alert to the authorities responsible of fighting these risks, the most important impact of the project has been accompanying and recognizing the Colombian communitarian leaders and Human Rights defenders. In the meantime, the commercial press has limited itself to counting victims and has moved away from journalistic coverage in remote regions of Colombia, due to the difficulties that the pandemic has brought.

With a publishing strategy in multimedia and printed press —booklets and publications in El Espectador, the second-largest newspaper in Colombia— we have added to the positioning of this important issue on the country’s news agenda, explaining the contexts around the risks and the interests of those behind this violence.

The quality of the investigations has been recognized by decision-making sectors in Colombian society, such as the Truth Commission and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, institutions created after the Peace Agreement that have requested our work as input for their investigations in their mission to recognize the rights of victims and survivors of the conflict.

Also, we have encouraged the participation of the audiences of this journalistic alliance in clarifying these contexts of violence. La Paz en el Terreno (The Peace on the Ground) has a citizen communication channel (Your Memory Counts) that receives complaints, additional information and proposals for new topics to map.

Finally, the impact has also been evidenced in the interest of international cooperation organizations to support our work. Today we have the support of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung foundation, with whom we have worked on the development of these maps since 2019 and we will continue with other mappings in 2021.

Techniques/technologies used:

Through workshops with cartographies, interviews, and safe spaces —both physical and virtual— to which groups of Human Rights defenders from the same regions are invited, it is possible to determine these risk maps, digitalized and published in multimedia and printed formats. Unique data journalistic pieces which show this issue in a way that could not be possible otherwise.

These risk maps are constructed under a team methodology and seek, through cartography, to involve the communities affected by the armed conflict in the construction of their information, so that it can then be contrasted, verified and contextualized. We adapted our methodology to remote, protected video communication due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In terms of journalistic practices, this initiative of risk maps is characterized by an empathic approach with the sources or participants of the cartographic workshops.

Once we collect the information from the physical maps, they are systematized in databases, digitized, illustrated and built with the D3 Javascript library. These maps are contrasted with expert and official sources, especially the Army and the Police Force, many times responsible for these risk contexts.

Additionally, information from the databases of social organizations, state institutions and our records on violence against communitarian leaders and Human Rights defenders in each region is cross-checked to establish patterns of this violence, obtain investigation leads and build infographics that clarify the dimension of these attacks in each territory.

The material is gathered and explained in interactive reports built in HTML5, published on the websites of  Rutas del Conflicto (Routes of the Conflict), Colombia2020 by El Espectador and La Paz en Terreno, as well as in radio and print.

What was the hardest part of this project?

When community leaders are asked how others can contribute to the protection of their lives, they have repeated the answer in every possible public platform: by responsibly making their situation visible. The experience of La Paz en el Terreno has shown us that showcasing the leadership of some attacked Human Rights defenders can work as a protection measure, but it is something that must be done with great care and responsibly handled information. 

In most cases, we exercise anonymity, reliable contact channels and physical, digital, emotional and gender-sensitive security protocols. The Foundation for Press Freedom has endorsed these protocols. In this way, we shield the security of our journalists, allies and sources.

On the other hand, due to the contexts of violence and inequality that surround the majority of community leaders, there are great difficulties in obtaining information, not only for security reasons but also because of the difficult access to communities, often far from the big cities. There, the collaboration of allies such as local social organizations and organizations from international cooperation has been key. They have a long history working with these populations, a wide recognition in these regions and are an important source of trust. These organizations have served as a bridge between us and groups of community leaders.

Another major challenge to accomplish this work in 2020 was the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the impossibility of meeting in person with our sources in the first months of the pandemic, it was necessary to adapt the methodology of the cartographic workshops to the virtual plane. Once the emergency somehow diminished, we were able to travel and meet, but keeping the respective biosecurity measures.

What can others learn from this project?

A belief that we share with many colleagues around the world is that journalism must go beyond reporting what is happening; it must also be deeply committed to social change. This project seeks to be useful for the dignity and recognition of the victims of the armed conflict, as well as an active agent in the construction of peace.

In particular, this project teaches that:

  • There are tools for social research, typical of Humanities and Social Sciences, that can be extremely useful for journalism, especially when it seeks to closely understand the voices and views of those who generally do not participate in the public sphere, like victims. One of these is social cartography, which proves quite valuable for journalistic research aimed to understand the territory through the eyes of our sources, identify and rethink social problems through maps, images and stories, and involve the protagonists of the stories in the construction of their own information. All of this material can also be subject to data journalism techniques, as we do in our work.
  • If we are small, it will always be better to find allies. This journalistic alliance shows that the union between journalistic projects that have similar interests can produce relevant and useful synergies for people. Rutas del Conflicto is a specialized media-outlet in research and data journalism and Colombia2020 covers day to day news and has a range of reach of tens of thousands of people. Both projects saw the need to come together to monitor violence against communitarian leaders, one of the most critical issues in terms of serious Human Rights violations in the country today.
  • After treating the information, you should give it back to the sources. The booklets are sent to the leaders and their communities.
  • A pandemic cannot stop good journalism.

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