Carlos Choc, a journalist for Prensa Comunitaria, was forced into hiding because of legal harassment and anonymous threats over his reporting in Guatemala's Izabal region. (Nelton Rivera/Prensa Comunitaria)

Trust deficit: ‘The goal was to silence me’

Prensa Comunitaria knows first-hand the risks of covering environmental issues and powerful economic interests. In August 2017, authorities in the eastern Izabal department issued arrest warrants for seven individuals, including two of the news website’s indigenous journalists: Carlos Choc and Jerson Xitumul Morales.

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The journalists said they believe the warrants, which accused the men of incitement to commit crimes, illegal protests and illegal detention during protests, were meant to intimidate and silence them.

At the time, the outlet was reporting on the protests and also investigating apparent pollution of Guatemala’s largest lake, Lake Izabal, in a region that is home to nickel deposits and a number of indigenous communities. Choc had also documented the death of a fisherman, killed when police fired on protesters on May 27, 2017.

Choc, Xitumul, and their colleagues deny the charges and said that the journalists were there only to cover the protests. They added that the reporters were not even present at one of the alleged incidents.

The case has dragged on for years, with the men forced to make frequent trips of three to four hours each way for court appearances that inevitably end with the judge postponing the trial. Authorities arrested Xitumul on November 11, 2017, and held him in pre-trial detention for more than five weeks before releasing him under house arrest.

Choc, who received threatening calls and messages over his reporting, said he presented himself before a judge in February 2018, but went into hiding after an arrest warrant was issued.

“The goal was to send me to jail and silence me,” Choc said.

The member of the Maya Q’eqchi’ community said he went into hiding over fears that police would take him into custody or that the callers would act on their threats.

Choc moved to a safe house, where he spent almost a year cut off from the world. The journalist’s colleagues said they had to find a safe house for Choc after the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a nonprofit that offers support to those under threat, failed to find a suitable location.

While in the safe house, Choc had to sell possessions, including his motorcycle and phone, to send money to his family. He spoke to his children only over a secure internet connection. “It was very hard to leave my children behind and go somewhere else without anything,” said Choc, who has been a journalist for more than 12 years. “I couldn’t even speak.”

The Prensa Comunitaria journalists say their colleagues never had a chance for a fair trial. The presiding judge repeatedly referred to Choc and Xitumul as trade unionists, dismissed their role as journalists, and consistently ruled in favor of the mining company in other cases related to the protests. In July 2018, a court dismissed the charges against Xitumul, but at a preliminary hearing in January 2019, the judge allowed the case against Choc to proceed, despite prosecutors asking that it be dismissed for lack of evidence, Prensa Comunitaria reported.

CPJ’s calls for comment to the Criminal Court of First Instance for Drug Trafficking and Environmental Crimes in Puerto Barrios went unanswered.

While Choc waits for the judge to respond to his legal team’s request to drop the case, he remains under “substitute measures” meaning he must check in with authorities once a month and follow other arbitrary guidelines, such as avoiding places that serve alcohol.

“I’m stuck on standby, literally,” he told CPJ in January 2020. Choc said he was still reporting but keeping a “low profile.” His colleague Xitumul, however, has stopped working as a journalist.