Speaking Out: Postwar Journalism in Guatemala and El Salvador

Guatemala and El Salvador have both emerged from bloody civil wars fought between conservative central governments and leftist insurgents. And in both countries, the press is beginning to show signs of independence.
Last April, a mysterious program called Hoy por Hoy (“Right Now”), appeared on Guatemalan radio. The format consisted of gossip and political chit-chat, and the hosts seemed to have it in for journalists. One of them often described Dina Fernández, a columnist and editor at Guatemala’s biggest daily, Prensa Libre, and her mother, Dina García, one of the owners, as bad journalists and loose women.

To many Guatemalan journalists the personal attacks seemed orchestrated. Nobody, not even the director of the radio station that broadcast Hoy por Hoy, knew who was responsible for its contents. But suspicion immediately fell on Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen, who already had a very hostile relationship with the press. Arzú had succeeded in damaging critical publications by depriving them of government advertising. And he had allowed the government-funded television program  Avances (“Progress”) to be used for partisan political purposes, trumpeting the government’s achievements and attacking the press for unfavorable government coverage.

Certainly, the staff of the Guatemala City daily  elPeriódico suspected government involvement. In an editorial published on June 1, the paper, which was created in 1996 and rapidly became a shining star of Guatemalan journalism, noted that it was “not out of this world to think that the government could be using a radio program such as Hoy por Hoy to discredit or undermine the independent press and the opposition in general.” A team of investigative reporters set out to discover who was behind the broadcast.

Their investigation bore fruit. On June 17, elPeriódico‘s front page carried the headline “Who’s behind Hoy por Hoy?” as well as a photo of a perplexed-looking Mariano Rayo, special adviser to the president. Using neat deduction, the accompanying article established that Rayo had founded the company responsible for the controversial program.

On June 18, Fernández addressed Rayo directly in her column: “You have dishonored the government and the governing party,” she wrote. “It’s been demonstrated, once again, that among you there are people who attempt to destroy the press, maybe not murdering us as before, but disqualifying and asphyxiating us.”

On June 23 the opposition Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) summoned Rayo to a hearing in Congress. Having endured a lengthy grilling about the program, he was asked to resign from the government. Rayo then submitted his resignation to President Arzú, who refused to accept it. And even while the governing party’s ethics committee was looking into the case, the party’s executive committee confirmed Rayo, who was not a party member before the Hoy por Hoy scandal broke, as one of its preferred candidates in the upcoming November elections to the Legislative Assembly. “In any other country this would have destroyed his aspirations,” says Fernández. “Here they reward him. . .There’s no American happy ending: Mariano Rayo will live happily ever after.”

Better days for the press?

While the  Hoy por Hoy scandal was disturbing, the fact that  elPeriódico was investigating slander instead of murder shows just how far the Guatemalan press has come since the country’s 36-year-long civil war officially ended in 1996. Since 1981, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented 29 journalists killed in Guatemala in reprisal for their work. But according to CPJ’s research there have been no press casualties in the past two years, although journalists have certainly experienced state and private sector harassment.

In El Salvador, similarly, journalism has become a much safer profession since the civil war ended in 1992. The 12-year war claimed the lives of 24 journalists, according to CPJ’s records. In the last several years there have been few violent attacks against the press. Salvadoran reporting has also improved in this period, although the editorial pages still display a knee-jerk allegiance to the government line.

Nowhere else in Central America has the press gone through such sweeping changes as in Guatemala and El Salvador. Both countries have emerged from gruesome civil wars in which anti-Communist governments confronted a leftist challenge. Yet the two wars were in fact very different, as was their impact on journalism in both countries. In Guatemala, the war politicized the press: journalists became political actors. In El Salvador the war had at least one positive result, in that the local press began to emerge as a more inquisitive and professional body.

Guatemala: learning from the Web

For over three decades the Guatemalan civil war dragged on between a strong army, supported by paramilitaries, and a weak, fragmented guerrilla movement. Most fighting took place in the highlands, where both factions tried to enlist indigenous inhabitants. Meanwhile, nation-wide state repression forced virtually an entire generation of intellectuals, including journalists, into exile.

In the 1970s, the war’s heightening intensity propelled the press into ever-more polarized journalism. Journalists became more involved in politics, and politicians became more involved in journalism. Even today, with the war well behind them, journalists often find it difficult to shed their role as political actors. One reason is that the press fills a void left by the weakness of Guatemala’s other political institutions. Guatemalans who fall victim to crime report it to the press, not the police; people with political complaints send letters to newspapers, not to the Congress. And even though the war is over, Guatemala is still fractured along ethnic, economic, and religious lines.

Guatemala’s civil war also took an educational toll on future generations of journalists. In the absence of good journalism schools, peer education in Guatemala is fundamental. But as the war’s intensity heightened, editors were unable to pass on their expertise to the young reporters working for them.

After Guatemala returned to constitutional rule in 1985, the press started to get back on its feet. Vinico Cerezo, the first civilian president in 16 years, conceded a limited degree of press freedom. Some new publications were forced to close, such as the weekly  La Epoca, which had been founded by Guatemalan exiles returning from Mexico. On June 10, 1988,  La Epoca’s offices were firebombed, presumably by right-wing paramilitary squads. But other critical publications emerged and survived during this period, notably the daily  Siglo Veintiuno and the weekly  Crónica. And for the first time, the guerrillas obtained media access, albeit mostly in the form of paid announcements.

Although President Arzú gets credit for signing the final peace accord between government and rebels during his first year in office, he has been criticized for not stemming the crime wave that has since engulfed the country. Arzú has proven highly intolerant of criticism, earning him the royal nickname “Alvoro I.”

Arzú’s furious responses to negative coverage have obliged the press to form a unified front against him. As a result, journalists often find it politically difficult to criticize one another. “If you tell another journalist that he made a mistake, it looks as if you’re defending the government,” says José Eduardo Valdizán, editor of  Siglo Veintiuno.

Soon after Arzú took office, the government’s spokesman started using weekly meetings with officials to urge them not to cooperate with critical publications such as  elPeriódico. One former official was reprimanded after giving government information to Crónica.

Arzú has also used industrialist friends in his National Advancement Party (PAN) to punish critical media by turning off publication revenues. Guatemalan journalists have compared this to a spigot. If they print good news, money flows in. If they print bad news, the money dries up. Crónica is a case in point. In December 1998, the independent-minded magazine was sold because its advertising revenues had disappeared. Rather than trenchant political journalism, the magazine now runs more to Dilbert comic strips.

But problems with advertisers also arise without government instigation. To write that a particular brand of automobile is the one most frequently stolen is to lose that brand’s advertising. As a result, editors must often balance journalistic integrity against financial need. Some editors print controversial business stories, but in a noticeably circumscribed manner. For example, company names generally appear only in the main story, and not in the headline.

Guatemalan journalists need better education in order to learn the professional skills that will enable them to analyze current events dispassionately and in depth. The major Guatemalan universities offer journalism programs, but their quality is poor. Prior to its emasculation under new ownership, the weekly  Crónica started sending its reporters to Florida International University. But the Internet really opened the eyes of Guatemalan journalists. “We’ve never been so exposed to the international press–to a more professional, better-finished, better-executed, more creative, more ingenious press–than now,” says Juan Luis Font,  elPeriódico’s co-editor, who formerly worked with  Crónica and was trained at FIU: “We who work in the written press owe it all to the Internet.”

El Salvador: correspondent courses

In El Salvador, reporters didn’t need the Internet to benefit from a large-scale import of foreign journalism: the war brought that to them. The Salvadoran civil war was a U.S. foreign policy obsession because it featured a strong Marxist guerrilla movement just a few days’ drive from the Texas border, as Ronald Reagan never tired of pointing out. As a result, there were many more foreign correspondents and bureaus in Salvador than in Guatemala. “Up until the Gulf War, every major paper and wire service had a bureau in El Salvador,” says  Washington Post reporter Colum Lynch, who was one of only a handful of foreign journalists covering the Guatemalan civil war in the late 1980s. “I worked alone, out of my apartment.”

The foreign correspondents in El Salvador had money to hire local assistants, whom they taught the tricks of their trade. “The local hires reported pretty much like Americans, writing tough stories, breaking news,” Lynch says. News-gathering in El Salvador was highly centralized: all the bureaus were located on the same floor of the Camino Real hotel in San Salvador. Whereas most fighting in Guatemala took place in remote rural areas, the Salvadoran civil war also engulfed the capital. Journalists worked in siege-like conditions and, as a result, developed considerable camaraderie.

Towards the end of the Salvadoran war, local universities started setting up journalism programs. Seasoned foreign reporters were hired to teach investigative reporting, photojournalism, and the like. German correspondent Toni Keppeler and German-Italian photographer Yvonne Berardi, for example, helped design the journalism program at the University of Central America in San Salvador.

Although plagued by low teaching salaries, these programs have become extremely popular. There are currently 3000 journalism students in El Salvador, a considerable number in such a small country. The social impact of this phenomenon is already clear. In the last several years, reporters have started getting more respect and cooperation from Salvadoran society–as well as higher salaries from their employers.

Journalism school graduates brought to their jobs the U.S. perception that the role of the press is to question those in power–a big change for a press that had historically echoed the government’s point of view. Over the years, this perception has made its way up the hierarchy in Salvadoran newsrooms.

Even though it folded after nine months, the weekly  Primera Plana influenced journalism in El Salvador. Set up in 1994 by former guerrillas, the magazine introduced El Salvador to serious muckraking. Veteran El Salvador correspondent Thomas Long served as an advisor to the project. “We were doing stories that other media wouldn’t do at the time,” Long recalls.

Financial difficulties eventually undermined the effort. Advertisers shied away from supporting an independent voice because they feared winding up on the receiving end of  Primera Plana’s fearless reporting. No business was willing to buy advertising; the magazine was initially financed through donations.

“We were kind of doomed from the start,” Long says. Even so, the weekly inspired many young Salvadoran journalists. Having observed the difficulty of launching an independent publication, they set about trying to transform existing media.

Another notable event in the emergence of a more inquisitive Salvadoran press was the arrival of Costa Rican editor Lafitte Fernández at  El Diario de Hoy, one of El Salvador’s two biggest dailies ( La Prensa Gráfica is the other). Having worked as editor of the respected Costa Rican daily  La Nación, and as instructor at Florida International University, Fernández introduced at a practical level the questioning attitude that Salvadoran journalism students were now being taught in the universities. He launched El Salvador’s first serious investigative reporting, focusing on the judicial branch.  La Prensa Gráfica was quick to follow suit.

One triumph was  El Diario de Hoy‘s investigation into the murder of Adriano Vilanova. This student’s 1995 death was held to be a suicide until an investigation by reporters at revealed that police had murdered him. The perpetrators were arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms of as long as 25 years. Last June, the Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal.

But today’s reporters still encounter the same problems that stymied  Primera Plana. “It’s easier to write a story on a police officer involved in drug-trafficking or in criminal activity than a story about a company that has damaged the environment,” says Héctor Silva, deputy chief of information of  La Prensa Gráfica. Because of the advertising revenues they provide, and because of the media owners’ interests in them, these companies are generally considered untouchable.

Reporters are trying to engage media owners to help change Salvadoran journalism. After  Primera Plana folded, for example, a group of foreign and Salvadoran journalists decided to create the press association Contraportada (“Back Page”). Established in 1996, the association organizes discussion gatherings, debates, and conferences, to which it also invites local press lords. Last May, the owner of  El Diario de Hoy attended a Contraportada debate on the legal framework of press freedom. His presence was significant in a country where media owners have generally preferred to fraternize with other members of the political and economic elite, rather than with the journalists in their employ. And media owners have been invited to join in discussions on El Salvador’s first code of journalistic ethics, a project of the Association of Journalists of El Salvador, the oldest and biggest local press organization.

This is not to say the owners have embraced H.L. Mencken’s dictum that the attitude of a journalist to a politician should be that of a dog to a lamppost. At the ownership and higher editorial levels, Salvadoran journalism is still closely entwined with the government, which for the third consecutive presidential term is being run by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). The current managing editor of  La Prensa Gráfica was minister of education under former President Armando Calderón Sol. Current President Francisco Flores, who took office on June 1, has appointed the former editor of  La Prensa Gráfica, Flavio Villacorta, as chief of the intelligence service.

But despite this incestuous traffic, most journalists have difficulty accessing the corridors of power. Members of the Legislative Assembly often turn off the sound in the press cubicles when discussing sensitive issues, and judges can arbitrarily deny reporters access to files or trials for reasons of morality, public interest, or national security–a power they often use.

The road ahead

Both the Guatemalan and the Salvadoran press lack independence from advertisers and access to official information. Yet in El Salvador, a new generation of journalists has opened space for critical reporting despite the country’s excessively concentrated political and economic power. Readers have learned to expect a higher level of journalism. As a result, owners are slowly learning to give reporters more latitude to meet these expectations. Over time this market mechanism has allowed journalists to write more for the public and less for their employers.

But while Guatemala is at a disadvantage in terms of education, there is more political pluralism there than in El Salvador. In the  Hoy por Hoy scandal, the opposition pressed for a government official’s resignation after a media investigation suggested that he had conspired to smear journalists (as well as the opposition). At the same time, the situation of the Guatemalan press remains fluid. Should an opposition party win the November elections, the press might be less inhibited by state-prompted economic harassment.

However, the press needs more support if it is to transcend the partisan political role that it acquired during the war and establish itself as a fair watchdog over governments of all stripes. In order to make progress in this direction, Guatemalan journalists will need popular backing. And to generate public enthusiasm, the press will need to prove itself through objective reporting. The Salvadoran experience suggests that better reporting raises reader expectations, which in turn opens more space for independent journalism. But for this to happen in Guatemala, the country needs better and more structured opportunities for journalistic education than the Internet can provide.