Guatemala's Constitutional Court is seen in Guatemala City on April 14, 2021. The court recently reversed a decision that had blocked bills threatening press freedom from being implemented. (AP/Moises Castillo)

Proposed ‘NGO Law’ threatens press freedom, independent reporting in Guatemala

Guatemala City, May 19, 2021 – Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei should reject a proposed law granting the government broad control over the finances and operations of non-governmental organizations, including nonprofit news outlets and press freedom groups, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On May 12, newly elected members of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned a March 2020 ruling by the court’s former members that had halted the implementation of the so-called “NGO Law,” a set of amendments to the country’s laws covering non-governmental organizations, according to Reuters.

The amendments, which will go into force if signed by Giammattei and published in the government’s official gazette, would empower the Interior Ministry to unilaterally deregister any non-governmental organization it determines to have “violated the public order,” and would require organizations to disclose all foreign funding, according to news reports and an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based human rights advocacy organization.

Giammattei previously signed the amendments into law, but their implementation was blocked by the court’s March 2020 ruling, that analysis said.

According to those reports and a copy of the proposed legislation, which CPJ reviewed, the legislation would apply to a broad range of Guatemalan organizations, including human rights and press freedom organizations that are registered as non-profits.

“Independent media outlets and press freedom organizations in Guatemala are a vital source of reporting on corruption and government mismanagement, and authorities must allow them to continue fulfilling this watchdog role without interference or surveillance,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “President Giammattei should reject the ‘NGO Law’ and ensure the Guatemalan government is not seeking to silence the voices tasked with holding it accountable.”

Lisbeth Carolina Reyes, secretary-general of the Constitutional Court, told CPJ in a video interview that the recent ruling did not reflect the court’s endorsement of the content of the bill; she said that the court had only determined that the previous March 2020 suspension of the amendments was improper, and therefore the legislation should be able to proceed.

The Guatemalan Association of Journalists, a local press advocacy group, released a statement on May 12 saying the law will impact “press associations…that may be intimidated or canceled because of what the competent authorities arbitrarily consider ‘acts that alter the public order.’”

On May 13, more than 200 Guatemalan organizations signed a statement calling on the government to halt the legislation, saying that it “grants the Executive an almost absolute power to decide who can and who cannot express themselves and organize.”

Patricia Letona, a spokesperson from President Giammattei’s office, told CPJ via messaging app that the presidency could not comment on the issue until the office was officially notified of the court ruling, saying “the only information we have is the one [the court’s announcement] in the media.”

In March 2020, CPJ published a special report on press freedom in Guatemala and called on Giammattei to reverse the trends of legal harassment, threats, and persecution of journalists. Since then, CPJ has found that the Giammattei administration has failed to strengthen protections for journalists or ensure access to information.