Guatemala’s President Is No Friend of the Press

“During the long period of armed confrontation, even thinking critically was a dangerous act in Guatemala, and to write about political and social realities, events or ideas meant running the risk of threats, torture, disappearance and death,” writes the Commission for Historical Clarification in its report on Guatemala’s civil war, which was released on February 24. Violence against journalists has subsided since a peace treaty was signed in 1996. But there is a chilling new threat to press freedom in Guatemala: the policies of the government of President Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen.
During the armed conflict, Guatemala was a lethal environment for journalists. In 1980, two vehicles intercepted the car of La Nación reporter Irma Flaquer Azurdia — her son was shot to death and she was never seen again. U.S. reporters Nicholas Chapman Blake and Griffith Davis disappeared in 1985; the paramilitary is blamed for their death. In 1993, Jorge Carpio Nicolle, founder and editor of the daily El Gráfico, was ambushed by more than 30 armed, hooded men and shot dead. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented 29 journalists murdered in Guatemala in reprisal for their work.

Given this background, press freedom has come a long way in Guatemala: the only attack on the press CPJ documented in 1998 was a death threat, and the responsible police officer was suspended. But since President Arzú took office in 1996, tensions between the press and his government of have grown exponentially.

The Guatemalan press has set out to report aggressively on the soaring crime rates that cut short the euphoria about the peace treaty. But President Arzú, formerly a businessman in the tourism sector, lashed out at the press for reporting on criminal activities, arguing that these negative reports would scare away tourists. Arzú has blamed the Guatemalan press for exaggerating crime stories to attract more readers. He was one of only two Latin American leaders who supported a cynical initiative put forward at a November 1997 Ibero-American summit, which affirmed a right to “free and truthful” information.

In its pursuit of “free and truthful” coverage, the Arzú government has taken to punishing media by hitting at their revenues: a number of media suffered from what Guatemalan journalists allege is a concerted government effort to deprive critical publications of advertising.

The owners of the highly acclaimed magazine Crónica were forced to sell last December; the independent weekly reported a dramatic decrease in private-sector advertising since President Arzú took office. According to a January 1998 memorandum, all state agencies were prohibited from advertising in the publication that, to the mind of an editor at a rival publication, “single-handedly lifted the standards of journalism in Guatemala.” After the sale of Crónica, the new owners announced that Mario David García, a right-wing journalist reputed to be close to the Arzú government, would assume the editorship. Most of Crónica‘s reporters quit in protest.

While the sale of Crónica is the most egregious example of the corrosive effect of financial harassment by the Arzú government, it is far from unique. Some journalists attribute the change of ownership of the 50-year-old radio program “Guatemala Flash” to financial harassment. Other media have toned down their editorial stance, or have folded. “This is the silent death of press freedom,” notes Francisco Pérez de Antón, a former owner of Crónica.

Guatemalan journalists say they are not only hindered by economic pressure, but also by lack of access to official information. It is privileged, they say — given to those who provide positive coverage, or not given at all. Presidential spokesman Ricardo de la Torre has reportedly used his weekly meetings with government officials to urge them not to cooperate with critical publications.

“The government does not realize that political space and freedom of expression are not gracious concessions of the government, but hard-fought gains,” remarks Eduardo Villatoro, a columnist for the daily Prensa Libre and former president of the Guatemala Journalists Association.

One of the recommendations of the truth commission is that the government develop a campaign that “should be based on principles such as democracy, tolerance, respect for human rights and on the use of dialogue as an instrument for the peaceful solution of disputes. Likewise, it should include the promotion of the development and free circulation of information…” Implementing this recommendation, Arzú should stop blaming the messengers for the news they deliver and start accepting criticism as an integral part of the robust dialogue that is at the core of a truly democratic society.

Marylene Smeets is the research assistant for the Americas Program of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

A version of this article appeared in the Houston Chronicle.