Attacks on the Press 2000: Guatemala

DESPITE THREATS AND INTIMIDATION, Guatemalan journalists continued to pursue dangerous stories, including investigations into military activities and a government intelligence agency.

Perhaps the biggest story of the year was the August revelation that Guatemalan legislators had secretly conspired to reduce a new tax on alcoholic beverages. Among those implicated in the scandal was the president of Congress, former military dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. “Unlike in the past, we did our job and didn’t remain silent,” said Dina Fernández, a columnist and editor at Prensa Libre, the Guatemala City daily that broke the story.

The country’s bitter heritage of violence, however, continued to provoke tensions. Many were surprised when President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, a member of the rightist Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) and a close ally of General Ríos Montt, professed a strong commitment to human rights. Within weeks of Portillo’s inauguration on January 14, three military officials were charged with the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, an outspoken human rights advocate who was bludgeoned to death in 1998.

At the same time, a Spanish court was investigating charges of genocide against Ríos Montt and two other former Guatemalan dictators. (The investigation was shelved in December.) These investigations sparked renewed attacks on local human rights advocates, including several murders.

On May 15, the Guatemala City daily elPeriódico published an article containing detailed allegations that the Presidential High Command (Estado Mayor Presidencial) was running a secret intelligence agency under the direction of a retired military officer. The night before the story ran, an elPeriódico reporter was followed by an unmarked car with covered license plates. Several other reporters working on the story were also followed or received threatening phone calls. CPJ expressed its concern about these incidents in a May 19 letter to President Portillo.

The Guatemala City daily Siglo Veintiuno reported on May 23 that other journalists covering the military were also intimidated. A journalist with the daily Nuestro Diario received a threatening phone call, a reporter for the radio news program “Guatemala Flash” was faxed a death threat, and two of Siglo Veintiuno‘s own reporters fielded threatening phone calls, according to the daily. The leftist news agency CERIGUA also reported receiving several threats.

On July 21, an ominous paid advertisement entitled “An Open Letter from the Pro-Army Patriots to the People of Guatemala” appeared in Siglo Veintiuno. The announcement railed against those “seeking to destroy the army,” referring indirectly to elPeriódico publisher José Rubén Zamora. “From now on it must be made firm and clear our intention to defend the institutionality of the army and our sovereignty,” the advertisement said.

While none of the threats were carried out, Guatemalan journalists were shocked by the death of Roberto Martínez, a photographer for Prensa Libre, who was killed in April while covering a riot sparked by a bus-fare increase. Although he carried a camera and was clearly identifiable as a member of the press, Martínez was shot by private security guards who opened fire on the rioters. Two other journalists were injured in the attack.

That same day, a newly created press freedom organization called Centro para la Defensa de la Libertad de Expresión (CEDEX) condemned Martínez’s killing in its first communiqué.

Beyond threats and violence, Guatemalan journalists allege that the concentration of media ownership has thwarted the development of independent broadcast journalism in the country. Mexican national Angel González owns all four of Guatemala’s private television stations, in violation of constitutional bans on both monopolies and foreign media ownership. In February, González canceled a hard-hitting news program called “T-Mas de Noche,” with some charging that President Portillo was behind the move.

In order to stem the ensuing controversy, Portillo invited Santiago Canton, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression, to visit Guatemala. After a three-day investigation, Canton urged the government to investigate the television monopoly. Canton also recommended suspending the public auction of radio frequencies. (Small broadcasters cannot afford to participate in these auctions, although under the country’s 1995 peace accords the government must make radio frequencies available to indigenous communities.) Soon after Canton’s appeal, the government suspended the auctions.

Roberto Martínez, Prensa Libre
Christian Alejandro García, “Noti7”
Julio Cruz, Siglo Veintiuno

Private security guards in Guatemala City shot and killed Martínez, a photographer for the daily Prensa Libre. García and Cruz were injured in the incident.

Martínez was shot while covering a demonstration against a bus-fare increase. When some protesters tried to loot an auto-parts store, private security guards opened fire on the crowd from the roof of the store, according to local CPJ sources and press accounts.

Martínez, 37 and the father of six, was hit twice and later pronounced dead at the San Juan de Dios hospital. A woman who had been standing near Martínez was also killed. García, a cameraman for the television news program “Noti7,” and Cruz, a reporter with the Guatemala City daily Siglo Veintiuno, were hospitalized with injuries.

Journalists at the scene detained the two security guards and turned them over to police, according to CPJ sources. At the time of the attack, Martínez was carrying a camera and was surrounded by colleagues who also carried cameras and other professional equipment, clearly identifying them as journalists.

CPJ circulated an alert about the attack on April 28. The security guards, Gustavo Adolfo García Rosales and Luis Fernando Ramírez Pérez, were awaiting trial at year’s end.