Attacks on the Press 2002: Guatemala

Relations between the government and much of the press remained hostile during 2002. Human rights groups continued to criticize President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera’s administration for ignoring and postponing obligations that the Guatemalan state had agreed to under peace accords that ended the country’s 36-year civil war in 1996.

Confrontation between Portillo’s ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) and the nation’s leading dailies–Prensa Libre, Siglo Veintiuno, and elPeriódico–escalated in 2002. While the president openly complained that the print media had joined an opposition campaign to overthrow his administration, the press accused Portillo of trying to discredit journalists and attacked the government for being corrupt and inefficient.

Members of the media in Guatemala still face intimidation and harassment for their work. The situation is even more difficult for provincial journalists, who are often pressured by local governors and mayors. Authorities have either failed to investigate several attacks against journalists or have not followed up on their own preliminary inquiries into the incidents. Moreover, local media are owned by a few economically powerful business groups, while several sectors of the population–particularly peasants and indigenous citizens–are excluded from the news agenda.

In January, Guatemala’s Constitutionality Court temporarily suspended a law that requires all university graduates, including those with journalism degrees, to register with trade associations known as colegios. Many journalists and international press freedom organizations opposed the legislation, which was signed into law in December 2001.

Media tycoon Ángel González, a Mexican national and the brother-in-law of former Guatemalan minister of infrastructure, housing, and communications Luis Rabbé, has used his broadcasting empire to discredit newspapers that criticize the government. Through front companies, González owns all four of Guatemala’s private television stations, which violates constitutional provisions against both monopolies and foreign ownership of the media. He has canceled two independent news programs and wields enormous influence over Guatemalan politics.

A bill on community media presented to the country’s unicameral Congress in February remained stalled at year’s end. In June, community radio organizations, which had helped draft the bill, denounced FRG attempts to extend the legislation’s benefits to evangelical radio stations. According to the community groups, the move would allow the FRG, which has close ties to evangelical radio stations, to use them to disseminate partisan propaganda.

Under the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples–one of several peace agreements that the government and the former guerrillas signed under U.N. auspices–Guatemala is obligated to reform current broadcasting license laws to make frequencies available to the country’s indigenous population. During 2002, however, the national telecommunications agency announced that it would auction the limited number of radio frequencies available to the highest bidders.

In October, the government submitted legislation to Congress that creates guidelines for accessing state information. The journalists’ group Asociación de Periodistas de Guatemala (Association of Guatemalan Journalists) criticized the lack of debate and transparency surrounding the measure. At year’s end, Congress was still discussing the bill.

Meanwhile, there was little progress in the case of radio journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz, who was murdered in September 2001 outside his home in the Caribbean port city of Puerto Barrios. Alegría hosted an afternoon call-in show that often discussed corruption and official misconduct. The man allegedly hired to kill Alegría remains in jail while awaiting trial.

April 10

David Herrera, free-lance

Herrera, a free-lance journalist, was kidnapped and threatened by four unidentified assailants, apparently in retaliation for his work with Gerry Hadden, the Mexico, Central America, and Caribbean correspondent for U.S.-based National Public Radio (NPR). Herrera works as a free-lancer for NPR, among other international news organizations. A week earlier, Herrera and Hadden had been covering several sensitive stories, including recent murders blamed on government forces.

According to an account that Hadden provided to CPJ, Herrera arrived at the offices of Enlaces, a consortium of free-lance journalists in downtown Guatemala City, at around 10:30 a.m. on April 10. As Herrera was exiting a truck that Hadden had rented for the week, he noticed four men loitering in the area, at least two of whom were carrying automatic pistols. The men approached Herrera and pushed him into the truck.

The assailants asked Herrera, “Where is the material?” apparently referring to the recordings and documents the journalists had gathered during the week. Herrera emptied his pockets and handed over his belongings, but they repeated their question and searched the truck. The assailants told Herrera that they were going to kill him, and one cocked his gun.

Herrera was later released and filed a police report. Although he suffered no physical injuries, he was in shock and checked into a private clinic, where he stayed for a few days. On April 16, Herrera filed a complaint with the office in the Public Ministry that investigates crimes against journalists. He went into exile the next day.

June 7

Abner Guoz, elPeriódico
Marielos Monzón, Emisoras Unidas
Ronaldo Robles, Emisoras Unidas
Rosa María Bolaños, Siglo Veintiuno

Guoz, a reporter with the daily elPeriódico; Monzón and Robles, hosts of the morning radio program “En Perspectiva,” broadcast on the radio station Emisoras Unidas; and Bolaños, a reporter with the daily Siglo Veintiuno, received death threats from a group that may be linked to far-right extremists.

In late May, various human rights organizations and media outlets received a fax that referred to meetings that human rights organizations had recently held with a United Nations representative about abuses in Guatemala. The fax, which was addressed to the “enemies of the motherland” and was signed by an unknown group that called itself “True Guatemalans,” threatened the four journalists and seven human rights activists. The note called human rights activists the “scum of society,” accused them of damaging Guatemala’s image, and warned that should their denunciations have any effect on the country, the activists “would have to pay for it with their blood.”

Radio journalists Monzón and Robles had extensively covered the meetings with the U.N. representative and, according to Robles, devoted the June 3 edition of “En Perspectiva” to a special report on threats against human rights activists. Guoz regularly covers the official residence of the Guatemalan president for elPeriódico but has also reported on the issue of land redistribution. Bolaños, who was abroad at the time of the threats, said that she did not know why she was mentioned in the fax, and that she had not received threats before. Bolaños regularly covers the Congress, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and political affairs.

In several meetings with the U.N. representative, human rights activists expressed their concerns about the escalation of threats against them and other personnel involved in investigations into human rights violations that took place during Guatemala’s civil war, which officially ended in 1996. Observers attribute the threats to right-wing paramilitary or clandestine groups with alleged links to the military and the police.