Guatemala: Mob attacks newspaper for alleging government corruption

February 22, 2001

His Excellency Alfonso Portillo Cabrera
President of the Republic of Guatemala
Guatemala City, Guatemala

VIA FACSIMILE: 011-502-239-0090

Your Excellency,

We are writing to express our deep concern about the attack against the offices of the Guatemala City daily elPeriódico, which apparently resulted from the newspaper’s coverage of high-level corruption in your government.

On February 20 at 11:00 a.m., about 50 protesters gathered in front of the elPeriódico offices and threatened the newspaper’s staff. According to CPJ sources, the protesters identified themselves as supporters of Luis Rabbé, the minister of communications, infrastructure, and housing. Both elPeriódico and the daily Prensa Libre have strongly criticized Rabbé’s official conduct.

The mob attempted to force the daily’s doors open and threw burning copies of the newspaper into the building, which also houses the Prensa Libre group’s daily Nuestro Diario. In addition, they burned a piñata representing elPeriódico‘s publisher José Rubén Zamora, and demanded that he appear before them. The protesters also tried to attack three photographers, two from elPeriódico and one from Nuestro Diario; and they damaged two vehicles belonging to Nuestro Diario. Local police took 40 minutes to respond to a call for help from elPeriódico’s offices. When the police finally arrived, they did not make any arrests.

Journalists at elPeriódico subsequently identified some of the protesters as employees of the Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing. At least one car used to transport them was traced to the same ministry.

In articles published since November 2000, elPeriódico has exposed corruption and irregularities in the awarding of public works contracts by Rabbé’s ministry. Early in January 2001, local press reports quoted Rabbé as saying he was the “victim of a campaign of personal destruction by some journalists.” Radio and television stations owned by Angel González, a Mexican national who is Rabbé’s brother-in-law, have also been waging a campaign to discredit elPeriódico.

Through front companies, González owns all four of Guatemala’s private television stations, in violation of constitutional prohibitions against both monopolies and foreign ownership of media. He has cancelled two independent news programs in the past and wields enormous influence over Guatemalan politics. González has been a leading financial contributor to Your Excellency’s political campaigns, and Rabbé himself is a former executive in González’s media empire. According to our sources, television crews from González’s stations arrived outside elPeriódico 20 minutes before the February 20 attack.

While we are aware that Your Excellency has condemned the attack on elPeriódico’s offices, CPJ remains deeply concerned about the incident, given Guatemala’s unfortunate history of violence against journalists. The attack, along with the radio and television campaign against elPeriódico, is a clear attempt to intimidate the newspaper’s journalists and prevent them from covering an issue of obvious public interest.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, we call on Your Excellency to investigate this attack in a prompt and thorough manner. In addition, we urge Your Excellency to ensure that all journalists in Guatemala are able to work safely, without fear of threats or intimidation.

Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director