Attacks on the Press 1999: Guatemala

President Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen maintained a hostile relationship with the press during his four years in power but took a more subtle approach in 1999 when the country held legislative and presidential elections.

Arzú, who had previously railed against journalists who criticized his government, toned down his rhetoric but continued to undermine the press through other means. For example, a special advisor to the president was discovered to be behind a radio program dedicated to discrediting journalists and members of the opposition. (See the special report on postwar journalism in Guatemala and El Salvador.)

In a country where memories of the brutal, 36-year civil war are still fresh, reporters generally avoid taboo subjects such as links between the military and the drug trade. Journalists are occasionally threatened. In May, the Guatemala City daily elPeriódico reported that two of its reporters were followed by a car belonging to the presidential security detail.

The trial of two brothers charged for the 1997 murder of journalist Jorge Luis Marroquín Sagastume, founding director of the weekly Sol Chortí, served as a reminder that violent attacks can still occur at any time. On September 21, Neftalí and José Gabriel López León were sentenced to 30 years in prison. José Manuel Ohajaca, the former mayor of Jocotán, who allegedly hired the López brothers to kill Marroquín in retaliation for his coverage of local government corruption, remained at large; at year’s end he was rumored to be living in Los Angeles.

Spurred by Guatemala’s increasingly outspoken civil society, the press is assuming a more vital role in monitoring abuses of government power. Although media organizations are trying to end the practice of accepting fafas, or bribes, press corruption remained an issue of concern. Accordingly, a local press association called the Asociación de Periodistas de Guatemala talked about the need for a professional code of ethics.

While print media have begun to pursue more aggressive investigative reporting, broadcast journalism lags far behind. Money is part of the problem: in a country where radio is the dominant medium, small cooperative stations lack the resources to bid on radio frequencies in public auctions. Indigenous groups are also clamoring for greater media access, noting that the 1994 – 1996 peace accords called for indigenous-language broadcast frequencies.