CPJ verifies climate of threats and intimidation against the press

  • Guatemala City, October 24, 2003—A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today verified a climate of threats and intimidation against the Guatemalan press, following a five-day visit to the country.

    The purpose of CPJ’s visit was to assess press freedom conditions in Guatemala; ask the Guatemalan government to provide information about the status of investigations into threats and attacks against journalists; urge the government to guarantee the safety of media workers so that they are able to do their jobs in the current election process; and show solidarity with the local press.

The CPJ delegation, which included Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría and Researcher Sauro González Rodríguez, exchanged views with journalists, human rights activists, and U.N. and government officials.

The CPJ mission was prompted by recent press freedom abuses in the months leading up to Guatemala’s presidential elections. On July 24, followers of ruling party Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) candidate Efraín Ríos Montt rioted in the streets of the capital and harassed several journalists, among them Héctor Ramírez, who died from a heart attack after being chased by protesters.

The delegation confirmed that the risks journalists face in the country’s interior are even greater than those faced by their colleagues in Guatemala City. As a result, CPJ believes that Guatemala has become one of the most dangerous places in the Americas to practice journalism.

So far this year, CPJ has investigated and documented threats and attacks against journalists Pablo Efraín Rax Chub, Alberto Sandoval, Edgar René Saenz, José Rubén Zamora, Juan Luis Font, Carmen Judith Morán Cruz, Luis Eduardo de León, Juan Carlos Torres and Marvin del Cid, among others.

In meetings with journalists from several media outlets, CPJ gathered information about press freedom violations ranging from anonymous death threats to physical attacks. According to CPJ, Guatemalan journalists work in a climate of hostility where they are targets of intimidation by corrupt politicians, drug traffickers, organized criminals, and clandestine groups.

Although President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera will step down after the inauguration of the new president in early 2004, the government has the obligation to create an environment in which Guatemalans can fully exercise their right to vote. A free press is an essential component of any democratic elections, and unless the government takes steps to guarantee the journalists’ safety, the legitimacy of the next elections will be called into question.

The CPJ delegation discussed these issues in meetings with Marco Antonio Cortez, the Attorney General’s special prosecutor for crimes against journalists and trade unionists; Marcel Arévalo, adviser to the Foreign Affairs minister; and Sergio Morales, Human Rights Ombudsman.

Cortez talked about the work of the Attorney General’s office in investigating the attacks against journalists during the July riots. He explained that his unit has requested preliminary proceedings (antejuicios) for high-ranking government officials, FRG parliamentary deputies, and even President Portillo.

Despite the lack of results in the investigations of more than 60 cases of threats and attacks against journalists throughout 2003, Cortez stated his commitment to fully investigate them. CPJ will continue to monitor the status of these investigations to see that those responsible for attacking members of the media are prosecuted.

Amid a heightened political situation and hostile relations between the government and the local press that could endanger the public’s right to information about crucial developments in the country, CPJ urges the Guatemalan government to:

  • Speak publicly in support of press freedom and prevent acts of intimidation against journalists;
  •   End the impunity surrounding the threats and attacks against journalists, so as to leave no doubts about the government’s will to carry the investigations to their conclusion; and
  •  Investigate acts carried out by armed clandestine groups and dismantle the activities of these groups to send a clear message to society that violent acts will not be tolerated.

    Finally, CPJ calls on Guatemalan presidential candidates to refrain from making statements that may be interpreted as a license to attack journalists covering the elections.