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Attacks and bodyguards: The price of being a Colombian journalist | Latin America

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Caucasia, Colombia – Leiderman Ortiz’s mother, sister, brother and nephew were visiting him in Caucasia in May 2010 when a loud blast went off outside the house where they were asleep.

“I jumped out of my bed and started shouting, ‘Stay down, don’t move’,” Ortiz said.

“My poor mother was screaming. She was terrified.”

Unlike many others who have been targeted by the regular grenade attacks in Caucasia, a small city about 670km north of the Colombian capital Bogota, Ortiz isn’t a criminal. He writes about them. And the 2010 attack was the third of at least five known attempts or suspected attempts on the 45-year-old’s life.

The first occurred in 2009 in Medellin when he was leaving an office and an armed individual was waiting for him. Ortiz saw the individual and called the police. The next year, the 2010 grenade attack occurred. Two days after that attack, another grenade was thrown into his garden. The following year, at least two suspected hitmen were paid to follow Ortiz, but his security team prevented any attacks.

Covering a city that has always been at the heart of Colombia‘s conflict and criminal activities is no easy task – and many people would prefer Ortiz was dead.

Ortiz founded the La Verdad del Pueblo, translated as The Truth of the Town, independent newspaper two decades ago with the goal of exposing the crime and corruption that plagues his hometown.

He runs the paper alone, exposing crimes and pictures of high-profile gangsters, stories about polluted rivers and updates on local politics.





The mission of La Verdad del Pueblo is to expose the crime and corruption that exposes Caucasia [Mathew Di Salvo/Al Jazeera]

Threats against reporters are abundant in the country, and Ortiz’s work in one of the most dangerous regions makes him a regular target. He travels with four armed bodyguards, paid for by the Colombian state, which provides protection to individuals under the threat of political violence, and his family now never visits.

“Of course it’s tiring [having the constant protection],” Ortiz said. “But I have to go on.”

Murder rate soared

Born and raised in Caucasia, with a population of 100,000, Ortiz grew up around crime and corruption.

Uncomfortably humid, dusty and loud, Caucasia is the capital of Bajo Cauca, a subregion in the north of the Antioquia department. A key hub of the cocaine trade, Antioquia was home to much of the violence during Colombia’s half-century of war. 

Rich in gold and coca, a key ingredient of cocaine, rural Bajo Cauca has always been a desirable spot for right-wing paramilitaries, leftist rebel groups and drug traffickers to base themselves.

There were 139 murders in Caucasia last year, according to local media, accounting for a little less than half of the total number of homicides that took place across Bajo Cauca.

The violence is so out of control and Colombia’s new president, Ivan Duque, travelled to the area in the first two months of his presidency for an emergency meeting with security forces to analyse the situation.

The landmark 2016 peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government led to the armed group to putting down their weapons, paving the way for a power struggle between other rebel groups to gain control over Bajo Cauca’s illegal economies – mainly gold and coca.

Many frustrated former members of the FARC, disillusioned with the peace deal, have also rearmed and returned to the areas they once occupied.

The ‘bunker’

Aptly named the ‘bunker’, Ortiz’s modest home, surrounded by shops, sits in the middle of Caucasia. It is equipped with four surveillance cameras, a bulletproof front door and windows and three-metre walls with barbed wire. It is in the bunker where he puts together La Verdad del Pueblo every month. 

The first edition of the paper was released in 1999. Today, about 2,000 copies are circulated around Bajo Cauca each month. It’s also accessible online. A typical edition features corruption in the city hall, the naming and shaming local members of the BACRIM (criminal bands) or politicians involved in child abuse cases.

One of Ortiz’s latest scoops aided police in catching a teenager allegedly involved in the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl.





Leiderman Ortiz works in a room, named the ‘bunker’ [Mathew Di Salvo/Al Jazeera] [Daylife]

According to Ortiz, the citizens of Caucasia trust him more than police – many of whom reportedly have links with the BACRIM – and will regularly provide him with tips, including pictures or addresses of the latest gunman or thief.

“Yes, I feel proud and satisfied they [the people of Caucasia] can reach out to me,” he said. “But it’s also sad that there is so little trust in the authorities.”

Whether Ortiz is chasing a story or shopping, he is always accompanied by his security team and travels in a blacked-out bulletproof 4X4, followed by another car.

Ongoing dangers

The dangers Ortiz faces are common for journalists throughout Colombia, which ranks eighth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Global Impunity Index. The index examines the 14 countries where more than 82 percent of the perpetrators in the murders of 324 journalists have gone unpunished.

Fifty-one journalists have been killed in Colombia since 1992, and 39 of those murders are still unsolved, according to the CPJ.

Despite the 2016 peace deal, threats against journalists have increased, with a string of recent threats against prominent journalists in 2018 following the election of the new president, Ivan Duque, who campaigned on a promise to overhaul the peace deal.

Journalists reporting in the regions once occupied by the FARC are particularly vulnerable and the region of Antioquia has seen the most threats against reporters.





Ortiz travels with four bodyguards everywhere he goes [Mathew Di Salvo/Al Jazeera]

Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) NGO has acknowledged the seriousness of the situation.

“The situation with aggression against the press is getting worse and it’s very worrisome,” said Luisa Fernanda Isaza, coordinator of Defense and Attention to Journalists at the FLIP.

“For some journalists, reporting on the BACRIM is one of the subjects which generates the most self-censorship,” she told Al Jazeera.

She added it is difficult to cover as reporters have been attacked just for mentioning the subject of the BACRIM. 

In April 2018, two Ecuadorian journalists from the daily Quito-based El Comercio newspaper and their driver were kidnapped and killed by a FARC dissident group at the Colombia-Ecuador border while reporting on drug-related violence.

Their tragic story highlights the increasing dangers of reporting in hotly contested regions following the peace deal, areas that often generate the most important stories in the country.

“Unfortunately his [Ortiz’s] situation is far too common in Colombia and throughout the region,” Natalie Southwick, the CPJ’s programme coordinator for Central and South America and the Caribbean, told Al Jazeera.

“We’ve seen journalists reporting in post-accord regions face ongoing threats of violence for continuing to report there. The threat of violence, especially in smaller communities, does tend to lead to self-censorship.”

But reporting in Colombia has been dangerous for decades.

“With or without the presence of guerrillas, it will always be tough,” Ortiz said. 

Last year saw the 19th anniversary of the death of the widely-loved activist, comedian and journalist, Jaime Garzon, who was was shot five times while driving to work in Bogota on August 13, 1999.

A day after the anniversary of his death, a former top official of Colombia’s now-disbanded intelligence agency was sentenced to 30 years in prison for instigating Garzon’s murder.

But for Ortiz, and many others in Colombia, this is merely motivation.

“The truth is, I do it because, first and foremost, I really enjoy the job,” he said.

“It’s a big passion of mine [journalism] and every day I am motivated more and more.”

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Canadian report reveals spike in food-related litter during pandemic

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TORONTO — Restaurants’ inability to offer their usual dine-in service during much of 2020 may explain why an unusually high amount of food-related litter was found across the country, a new report says.

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup (GCSC) is an annual program in which volunteers are encouraged to clean up green spaces and other natural areas.

Last year, single-use food and beverage containers made up 26.6 per cent of waste collected through the program – nearly twice as high a percentage as in 2019, before the pandemic.

“We suspect the change may be one of the many implications of COVID-19, including more people ordering restaurant takeaway and consuming more individually packaged foods,” GCSC spokesperson Julia Wakeling said in a press release.

While food- and beverage-related litter accounted for a greater percentage of waste uncovered by GCSC than in the past, it wasn’t the single largest category of items picked up through the program last year.

That dubious honour goes to cigarette butts and other smoking-related paraphernalia, which comprised nearly 29 per cent of all items collected. There were more than 83,000 cigarette butts among the 42,000 kilograms of waste found and clean up last year.

So-called “tiny trash” – little pieces of plastic and foam – also accounted for a sizeable share of the waste, making up 26.8 per cent of the total haul.

In addition to smoking-related items and tiny trash, the main pieces of litter removed by GCSC volunteers last year included nearly 22,000 food wrappers, more than 17,500 pieces of paper, more than 13,000 bottle caps and more than 10,000 beverage cans.

Discarded face masks and other forms of personal protective equipment were also detected and cleaned up, although not tallied in their own category.  PPE waste has been repeatedly cited as a concern by environmental advocates during the pandemic; a robin in Chilliwack, B.C. is the earliest known example of an animal that died due to coronavirus-related litter.

The GCSC is an annual program organized by Ocean Wise and the World Wildlife Fund Canada. Its operations were disrupted by the pandemic as well; only 15,000 volunteers took part in the program last year, versus 85,000 in 2019, due to delays and public health restrictions making large group clean-ups impossible.

Still, there was GCSC participation from every province and the Northwest Territories in 2020. Nearly half of the volunteers who took part were based in B.C., where the program began in 1994.

Data from past GCSC reports was used as part of the research backing Canada’s ban on certain single-use plastic items, which is scheduled to take effect by the end of 2021.

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Canada: Significant Changes To Canada’s Federal Environmental Protection Regime Proposed

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On April 13, 2021, the government of Canada proposed significant changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (“CEPA”)1 through the introduction of Bill C-28, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act (the “Amendments“).2

With these Amendments, the government hopes to modernize Canada’s environmental regime which has not undergone significant change in over 20 years. CEPA is the primary statute through which the federal government regulates and protects the environment. CEPA and its accompanying regulations regulate among other things the treatment and disposal of chemicals and hazardous waste, vehicle and engine emissions, equipment and other sources of pollution, and the prevention and impact of environmental emergencies such as oil and chemical spills.

This bulletin provides an overview of the major changes to CEPA that have been proposed.

The Right to a Healthy Environment and Certain Soft Rights

Significantly, the Preamble under the Amendments will officially recognize Canadians’ right to a healthy environment. Section 2 of CEPA will require the government to protect that right when making decisions relating to the environment.3

The Amendments set out specific obligations the government must undertake to safeguard this right, including developing an implementation framework to set out how this right will be considered in the administration of CEPA as well as conducting research, studies and monitoring activities to support this goal.

In addition, the Preamble will recognize some additional considerations, including confirming the government’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as well as recognizing the importance of considering vulnerable persons, reducing or replacing the use of animal testing, and the right of Canadians to have access to information on product labels.

Project Impact Assessment

With respect to risk assessments under CEPA, under the new provisions the federal government must consider impacts on vulnerable populations and possible cumulative effects of the proposed conduct. Vulnerable populations will include groups of people with elevated biological susceptibility, such as children, and groups with elevated exposure risks, such an indigenous communities. Consideration of cumulative effects of proposed conduct takes a holistic approach to substance management by considering the compounding risks of exposure to various chemicals during daily life rather than looking at substances on their own.

Chemicals Management

The federal government has identified the management of chemicals as a key target area under the new CEPA.

The Amendments thus propose to overhaul this regime in order to better protect Canadians from the evolving risks of harmful chemicals and pollution. To accomplish this, the government has proposed wide ranging changes relating to risk assessment, public accountability, management of toxic substances and new substances, which are discussed in turn below.

Risk Assessment

The government must consult, develop and publish a Plan of Chemicals Management Priorities which will set out an integrated plan for the risk assessment of various chemical substances currently being used in Canada. The Plan will establish priorities for the management of substances, taking into account a number of factors including among others the views of stakeholders and partners, public comments, the effects on vulnerable populations, the toxicity of the substance, the ability to disrupt biological reproduction or endocrine systems, and whether there are safer and more sustainable alternatives.4 The government will also be empowered to make geographically targeted regulations to address pollution “hot spots”.

Additionally, the Amendments will establish a mechanism through which any person can submit a request to the Minister to assess a substance to determine its toxicity and risk to the environment. The Minister must provide a response within 90 days, indicating whether they intend to assess the substances and their reasons for their decision.

Public Accountability Framework

The Amendments intend to increase transparency and public participation in risk assessments by the government for the categorization and management of potentially toxic chemicals. Currently, CEPA contains a public accountability framework under section 77 and provides time limits for the government to assess substances under sections 91 and 92. However, these provisions only apply to certain risk assessments being conducted by the government such as substances placed on the Domestic Substances List that in the opinion of the Minister present the greatest potential for exposure to Canadians or are persistent or bio-accumulative. The proposed Amendments plan to amend section 77 to expand these transparency and accountability measures to all substance risk assessments for toxic or capable of being toxic substances, with the exception of assessments for new substances.5

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Scientists, Homalco First Nation team up to probe massive B.C. landslide — and its impact on salmon

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When the side of a B.C. mountain gave way on Nov. 28, 2020, crashing into a glacier fed lake and creating a 100-metre high tsunami, no one was around to see the destruction or hear the sound of rocks and trees tearing through the valley below. 

But scientists say the force, which was picked up by seismographs across North America, was the equivalent of a 4.9-magnitude earthquake. 

Fortunately, no one was in the slide’s path, but experts believe that a melting glacier likely contributed by making the slope less stable — and climate change means it is a growing risk. 

As more of Canada’s glaciers recede, scientists say there is great interest in finding out what exactly triggered this slide, and how the rocks and sediment have impacted the salmon population of nearby Elliot Creek and Southgate River. 

The mountain, which is located about 220 km north west of Vancouver, is on the traditional territory of the Homalco First Nation. 

It’s an area of remote wilderness, only accessible by air or by boating 80 km up Bute Inlet.

When the slide hit last year, more than 18 million cubic meters of rock barrelled down the slope hitting the lake within 30 seconds. 

“That is the equivalent of all of the cars in Canada coming down the hill at once,” said Marten Geertsema, a geomorphologist who works with the B.C. government studying landslides. 

He is one of several scientists, along with members from the Homalco First Nation, who have been studying the landslide and its cascading environmental impact on the watershed and salmon habitat. 

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