Playing chess – the key to staying sane under attack

In conversation with Claudia Julieta Duque, Colombian journalist and human-rights activist, Brussels, 25/06/2010.

“I play chess,” said Claudia. “It’s the only way I can cope with the continued assaults on my sanity and stay a few steps ahead of my attackers.”

I was speaking to Claudia Julieta Duque, Colombian journalist and human-rights activist, during her visit to Brussels for a European Parliament press conference on the activities of DAS, the Colombian secret service.

Colombia has an abysmal human-rights record. Its Department of Administrative Security (DAS) operates an ongoing programme of threats, harassment and systematic destabilisation of anyone who dares to be critical of its policies or actions. DAS is part of the Colombian national executive, reporting directly to the President.

In early 2009, following a report by the magazine Semana, the Colombian justice system began to reveal the scale of operations established by DAS against anyone who dared to be critical of the government. At least three court cases are now ongoing, with an important new trial commencing in Colombia in June/July 2010.

Freedom of Expression under attack
The facts presented are frightening. Fifteen years of massive espionage against journalists, members of the opposition and members of the Colombian courts. A total disregard for the law or for any aspect of democratic representation. Blatant attempts to control any kind of expression that could be interpreted as opposition. In effect, life in a police state.

Claudia herself became a target after she began investigating the murder of another journalist, Jaime Garzón, in 1999. Since that time, DAS has mounted an unremitting campaign of threats and harassment against her and her family.

Claudia was in Brussels to give information to the European Parliament about just how far DAS activities had gone. International, she claimed, presenting slides detailing one particular operation, “Operacion Europa”, and its stated objective of neutralising the influence of the European judicial system and the various human-rights commissions of the European Parliament and EU national governments.

The methods used? Counter attacks in the press and on the web, and something called “legal war”, which was not explained.

How to survive the pressure
But what interested me in particular was how she personally managed to survive, to stay sane when facing such pressure.

“You have to understand that the objective of these people is to undermine my sanity and my credibility,” she explained. “If by consistent pressure every day, with constant phone calls, emails that never arrive, harassment and abuse from strangers, and so on, they can cause me to complain non-stop to the police, then eventually I will be labelled as a trouble-maker and ignored.”

“So I always have to find a balance between reporting what is happening to me and not crying all the time to the extent that the police and my supporters start to ignore what is happening. For each incident I have to try and anticipate what these people are trying to achieve, and then do the opposite. It is this winning small of victories over these people from time to time that keeps me going.”

Yet the cost has been high. Claudia was already on her second self-imposed exile by 2004. And it was not until last year, in 2009, that the Colombian Court finally set out an order to protect her fundamental rights. The court has documented evidence that officers of DAS were directly involved in her harassment, in some cases causing her own bodyguards to act as spies and report on her movements.

Psychological destabilisation
But what kind of costs, what numbers of people, what level of resources must have been applied to mount such a huge campaign against one person over years?

I suggested that such a programme of deliberate “psychological destabilisation” was highly sophisticated, and questioned if such a programme could have been devised by DAS alone. She replied that almost certainly the DAS strategy used against her and other journalists had been devised with the help of security agencies of two countries in particular. When I asked which countries, she was not prepared to tell me in an open meeting but said, “I think that you can probably guess!” I said that I probably could.

It is ironic, I said, that almost certainly the people responsible for this programme believe that they are doing the right thing for their country. She agreed, saying, “I am certain that they do believe in what they are doing. The trouble is that a programme that was originally devised for countering the influence of communist revolutionaries, and later drug cartels, is now being used against members of the democratic opposition of my country. In this way, it is undermining democracy itself within Colombia.”

But what can we do here in Europe, I asked. “You can ask, for example, which Columbians came to Europe in the last year to work for Interpol, which has cooperated closely with DAS in the past,” she replied. “Are the same techniques being put in place in Europe? Five years in Paris or Lyon with attractive salaries is a good way to get people out of the way for a while.”

See also:

Update 01/07/10: Since this article was written, an important update has taken place:

Update 21/07/2010: In recognition of her services to investigative journalism, Claudia Julieta Duque has been awarded honorary membership of the NUJ. The award was presented in person by NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear in Colombia.

© Philip Hunt, 2010. All rights reserved.