Reporters Without Borders urges Guatemala’s political class to respect the freedom of journalists to work as they see fit. Against a backdrop of extreme political and social tension, President Otto Pérez Molina resigned today on the eve of a hearing on a corruption case in which he is allegedly involved. Journalists have been pressured and harassed by both government officials and candidates in the run-up to general elections on 6 September.
Intimidation is being used as a weapon against media personnel at all political levels, from national to municipal. Vice-President Edgar Barquín’s bodyguards attacked Prensa Libre reporter Edwin Pitán on 23 July while the journalist Jaime Soc received death threats from José Yac, a candidate for mayor in Cantel in the western department of Quetzaltenango, three days later, according to the Quetzaltenango Journalists’ Association. Government officials and candidates have accused several media outlets, including Prensa Libre, Emisoras Unidas and Publinews of “distorted” political coverage. These verbal attacks led to acts of vandalism against Prensa Libre’s headquarters in Guatemala City in mid-August. Censorship is another way of pressuring journalists. Patriot Party parliamentary candidate Enrique Maldonado had Optimo 23 and ATV 24 – two TV stations linked to a cable TV company he owns (Servicable) – closed on 6 August after they defied orders and broadcast reports about his political rivals. “We deplore the harassment of Guatemala’s media, especially by the political class, and we are dismayed to see that violence against journalists seems to be a well-established election campaign strategy,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Latin America desk. “We urge authorities and candidates to ensure respect for freedom of information and we condemn all forms of pressure, threats, censorship or physical attacks against media personnel. It is essential that measures are taken to guarantee the safety of reporters, especially during elections.” The National Civil Police (PNC) has also harassed journalists. On 26 August, members of this force physically attacked reporters who were waiting outside the court where Vice-President Roxana Baldetti was being tried on charges of illicit association, corruption and customs fraud. CERIGUA (Centre for Informative Reports about Guatemala) has registered a total of 74 direct attacks on journalists since the start of the year. Two of the victims, Danilo López of Prensa Libre and Federico Salazar of Radio Nuevo Mundo were killed. Guatemala is ranked 124th out of 180 countries in the press freedom index that Reporters Without Borders published in February.