Attacks on the Press 2004: Guatemala


In December 2004, the U.N. Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) ceased monitoring the implementation of the 1996 peace accords that ended decades of civil conflict. The end of the MINUGUA mission was a political milestone for Guatemala, yet the peace accords have not been fully implemented, and human rights abuses remain widespread.

Although Guatemalan journalists express their views freely, they may suffer retaliation. Journalists who report on such sensitive topics as human rights, government corruption, and crime may face threats and harassment from politicians, drug traffickers, and organized crime groups. Conditions are worse for provincial journalists, whom local politicians often pressure.

On August 31, police attacked a group of reporters, photographers, and cameramen who were covering the eviction of hundreds of peasants from a ranch in the southern department of Retalhuleu. After the journalists witnessed and filmed police killing several peasants, reportedly in revenge because peasants had shot dead three police officers during the eviction, the police turned on the press, attacking and threatening at least eight journalists. The police also confiscated cameras and video equipment. When several journalists tried to recover their equipment, police threatened them, fired shots into the air, and threw tear gas grenades at them.

The journalists, who were carrying press credentials and press jackets, had yet to recover their equipment at year’s end, including the tapes on which they recorded the alleged killings. In September, prosecutors brought preliminary charges of aggravated robbery, coercion, and abuse of authority against three police officers linked to the attack, and a judge ordered an investigation into the incident. The officers, who had been detained, were released on bail in October and placed under house arrest. Prosecutors had six months to conclude their investigation and request formal indictments.

Despite that incident, relations between the government and the local press have improved since the January 14 inauguration of President Oscar Berger, whose political coalition was endorsed by much of the media. Under Berger, the number of attacks against journalists has decreased significantly, according to CPJ research. During the presidency of Berger’s predecessor, Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala was one of the most dangerous places in the Americas to work as a journalist. As relations between the Portillo administration and the local press became more hostile, attacks and threats against journalists increased significantly. The lack of concrete results in investigations of attacks against journalists under Portillo reinforced the climate of impunity. During the run-up to the general elections in November 2003, attacks and threats against the press intensified. In July 2003, during two days of violent protests, government supporters attacked and harassed journalists.

But in an indication of 2004’s new mood, several investigations into attacks against journalists moved forward. In June 2003, a group of men terrorized the publisher of the daily elPeriódico (The Paper), José Rubén Zamora, and his family for two hours at his home, holding a gun to his head and telling the former CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient that they were going to execute him. In August 2004, a judge indicted two former members of the Presidential High Command—a military intelligence unit that has been linked to human rights abuses and was abolished in October 2003—for illegal detention, illegal breaking and entering, threats, and aggravated robbery in the Zamora case. A trial was scheduled for February 8, 2005.

In March, a judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence for prosecutors to investigate former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and senior members of his Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party to determine responsibility for the July 24, 2003, death of reporter Héctor Ramírez. Ramírez and several other journalists covering violent protests by supporters of the FRG were attacked, and Ramírez died of a heart attack after he was assaulted and chased by protesters. The judge also put Ríos Montt under house arrest, restricting his movements to Guatemala City. On September 27, prosecutors requested a formal indictment for Ríos Montt and fellow FRG members. A hearing scheduled for December 3 was postponed, and no new date had been scheduled by year’s end.

Two trials have been scheduled in relation to the September 2001 murder of journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz. Alegría, who was murdered outside his home in the port city of Puerto Barrios, hosted an afternoon call-in radio show that often discussed corruption and official misconduct. The trial of David Pineda, a parliamentary deputy and former mayor of Puerto Barrios who is accused of ordering Alegría’s murder, was scheduled for December 7, but it was postponed, and no new date had been announced by year’s end. The three men allegedly hired to kill Alegría will be tried in August 2005. Two of them are imprisoned awaiting trial, while a third remains at large.

In 2004, organizations of community radio stations, many of them based in indigenous communities, protested their lack of access to radio frequencies. Under the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples—one of several agreements that the government and former guerrillas signed in the 1990s under U.N. auspices—Guatemala is obligated to reform current broadcasting license laws to make frequencies available to the country’s indigenous population, but officials have yet to do so.