Dear Mr. Cortez:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to condemn a series of recent threats and violent attacks against Guatemalan journalists. With presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November 9, we are concerned that these incidents could multiply, increasing self-censorship among journalists and preventing Guatemalans from engaging in an open and meaningful political debate.
According to CPJ research, the following journalists have been threatened or attacked during May and June:
1. José Rubén Zamora, publisher of the daily elPeriódico and a former CPJ International Press Freedom awardee, was attacked at his home on June 24 by a group of men who held him and his family for two hours. Zamora told CPJ that at around 8:30 a.m., a woman and a group of 11 heavily armed men, who identified themselves as investigators from the public prosecutor’s office, invaded Zamora’s house in the capital, Ciudad de Guatemala, and held him, his family, and domestic employees for about two hours. The men put a gun to Zamora’s head, took him to another room, and told him he was going to be executed. After asking Zamora several questions, the attackers took him back to the room where his family was, his eyes blindfolded and his hands tied up. Zamora’s youngest son, 12, was hit in the ribs by one of the men, and his oldest son, 24, was hit in the head for defending his brother.
Before leaving, the men took Zamora’s credit cards and three handguns. The attackers then told Zamora that they knew his family’s routine and would kill them if he reported the attack. One of the attackers also told Zamora that he was “screwing up a lot,” that Zamora owed him 200,000 quetzales (US$25,000) for having kept the other men from harming him, and that he did not know why Zamora had a problem with the “people at the top.”
Zamora told CPJ that a clandestine group with government connections may have been responsible for the attack. He has published numerous articles, most recently on Monday, June 23, arguing that even though Guatemala has had free elections, a parallel power structure made up of a network of former military officers was actually running the country. Zamora claimed that ruling party candidate and former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt was part of that network.
2. Edgar René Sáenz, who hosts the call-in radio show “Somos de hoy” in the city of Sololá, capital of the southwestern department of Sololá, was threatened by unidentified individuals. According to the journalist, at around 1 p.m. on May 16, a person came up to him on the street, said hello, and told him to “watch his back.” The man added that Sáenz was going to have problems because of the issues he was discussing in his program. The man, who apparently was not from the area, then left. Subsequently, starting on June 12, he began receiving threatening phone calls, usually at around 11 p.m. or 1 a.m. The caller said “son of a bitch, your time is gonna come.”
Although Sáenz also works as a southwestern Guatemala correspondent for the dailies Prensa Libre and Nuestro Diario and for the radio network Emisoras Unidas, he linked the threats to comments he had made on his radio show about Sololá’s deputy mayor (now mayor). In his program, Sáenz charged that the deputy mayor was not concerned about protecting the environment. Sáenz also denounced the municipal government for allowing private individuals to take over municipal property. On June 12, after Sáenz discussed a case of alleged medical malpractice at Sololá’s Hospital Nacional, a member of the hospital’s staff was dismissed, according to Sáenz, who believes the threats came in reprisal for one or more of these broadcasts, either from municipal officials or from Hospital Nacional’s staff.
3. Alberto Sandoval, director of Radio Tamazulapa, based in the city of Jutiapa, in the southeastern department of Jutiapa, received a threatening phone call. The anonymous call was made to one of the radio station’s numbers at around 7:30 a.m., on May 15, while Sandoval, who hosts and produces a morning and an afternoon news program, was on the air. The caller said “we are going to shoot you dead, stop talking against our candidate.” A radio operator, who was taking calls from listeners, did not allow the threatening call to go on the air.
Sandoval linked the threat to comments he made on air in May about political campaigning that may have resulted in party leaders misleading voters about the popularity of certain precandidates for the mayor’s office in Jutiapa.
4. Pablo Efraín Rax, director of the news program “La Noticia,” broadcast by Radio Cobán, a radio station based in the northern department of Alta Verapaz, received several anonymous phone threats on his cell phone starting on May 13. The caller told Rax to “watch out and stop saying things you should not be talking about.” Ten days later, he received another threatening phone call with a similar message. The latest threat came on May 30, when a caller told the journalist that “they were following his every step.”
Rax believes that the same person made the three phone calls. He thinks that the threats may be related to news reports aired on “La Noticia” in early May about the police discovering several clandestine runways in Alta Verapaz that were apparently used by drug traffickers. Furthermore, Rax pointed out that “La Noticia” has recently run critical reports about the government and high-ranking members of the ruling party.
We are aware that your office has contacted some of the journalists mentioned above and we are encouraged by recent steps that your office announced in a June 13 meeting with the Association of Guatemalan Journalists (APG)’s Press Freedom Commission. According to a June 17 communiqué by the APG, you proposed the development of a joint strategy to prevent attacks against journalists, particularly in the current electoral process. You also mentioned the creation of a special hotline to report attacks against journalists. However, we believe that such initiatives cannot be effective if attacks against journalists are not taken with the seriousness and urgency they require and if those responsible for the attacks remain unpunished.
Therefore, we urge you to conduct immediately a thorough and prompt investigation of these acts of intimidation against journalists and to bring those responsible to justice. With elections approaching, it is crucial that journalists are able to report freely on political candidates and on issues of interest to all Guatemalans.
Thank you for your attention to this serious matter. We await your response.
Ann K. Cooper