On Sunday, June 16, the Guatemalan citizenry will participate in general elections to elect their next president and Members of Congress of the Republic for the 2020-2024 term. Traditionally, electoral years are periods in which attacks against freedom of expression and the press become more acute, especially in remote areas with little State presence. During the last elections (2015), the Observatorio de los Periodistas, an organization specializing in compiling and analyzing attacks against journalists, compiled 111 cases, including the assassination of three journalists.
In this context, Guatemalan journalists face a hostile scenario in order to freely perform their work, characterized by the passivity of the public security organs in cases of violence recorded against journalists and the indifference of current President Jimmy Morales, who during the last three years constantly took advantage of his public speeches to attack and generate animosity against the press.
The tumultuous period being experienced by the country gives rise to fear that these acts, as well as the use of criminal law, smear campaigns on social media, and attacks on websites, will be repeated during the coming months.
Historic violence against the press
Local officials and politicians employ diverse actions to attack the press and attempt to silence publications, criticisms, or investigations that might compromise their aspirations for power. These actions range from the massive purchase of newspapers in particular areas to attacks against journalists or the closure of news broadcasts in local media.
Censorship and self-censorship continue to be one of the principal problems faced by the press in the country’s departments. Frequently, journalists avoid researching or publishing information related to organized crime, embezzlement of funds, or illegal acts by public institutions due to the repercussions they or their families might suffer. The officers and structures of organized crime are identified by journalists as being the principal censors and in numerous cases it is suspected that a close relationship exists between criminal structures and public authorities.
Likewise, journalists avoid publicly or criminally denouncing the acts perpetrated against them out of fear of suffering greater reprisals or out of a lack of trust in the justice system institutions. The little progress made by investigations, heightened level of impunity, lack of interest of the authorities, and cooptation of justice sector representatives by criminal structures or political actors significantly influence this self-censorship.
Journalist Protection Program: a shelved promise
Journalists were hopeful that Morales would finally implement a specialized security program for their profession when in March 2016 he invalidated the process that had been launched by the previous government characterized by lacking legitimacy and being led by a consultant with no experience who acted opaquely and had prohibited the participation of journalists.
At that time, the government, through the Ministry of Social Communication, asked the Alianza de Entidades de Prensa [Alliance of Press Entities] – comprised of national and departmental press associations seeking approval of the program – to develop a new proposal to initiate the development of the Journalist Protection Program.
The initiative was submitted and in July 2016 the President endorsed its implementation. Unfortunately, as with many other promises, it remained shelved and its process stalled.
“Morales not only did not fulfill his promise of creating a Journalist Protection Program but rather, throughout his term he created an unfavorable context for journalists by accusing them of disseminating fake news in order to confuse the population and damage the government’s image,” notes Miguel Ángel Juárez, President of APG.
Official negative attitude toward the press
RSF and APG lament the deterioration of the stance of Jimmy Morales’ government toward the press, due to the constant confrontation and public attacks by the President against the news media.
“Contrary to what had been thought at the beginning of his administration, with the promise of his door being open to the press and having given his manifest support to the creation of the Journalist Protection Program, Morales became the most uncompromising president with regard to criticism and investigations by the independent press,” declared Emmanuel Colombié, head of the Latin America Office of RSF.
The President was also characterized by constantly avoiding reporters and refusing to respond to questions on controversial topics. While on one hand the President avoids answering questions posed by the media, on the other he takes advantage of his pubic speeches to paint himself as a victim in the face of questioning by the press by declaring that all they are is “fake news” seeking to harm his image. This stance encourages his followers or civil servants to commit acts of violence against journalists or attempt to limit their work with the argument that they only disseminate biased news.
In addition, incidents have occurred in which State involvement is suspected, such as the theft of journalistic equipment and personal belongings from members of Nuestro Diario and the Guatevisión channel in July 2018.
There were also defamation campaigns pursued in April 2018 against journalist Henry Bin of ConCriterio after one his investigations provided evidence of the relationship between the Minister of Social Communication of the Presidency, Alfredo Brito, and ‘netcenters’ that operate fake profiles to attack Morales’ critics.
Officials close to Morales have also utilized their State resources to take action against journalists and weaken the work that has been done to ensure journalists’ security. Due to the criticism against her, in July 2018 Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel filed a criminal lawsuit against José Rubén Zamora, president of elPeriódico for alleged psychological violence against women.
For his part, Minister of Government Enrique Dehengart has taken pains since the beginning of his term in 2018 to undermine the Instancia de Análisis de Ataques contra Defensores de Derechos Humanos [Office of Analysis of Attacks against Human Rights Defenders], a space in which attacks against journalists are discussed and justice sector authorities pressed to take action and ensure accountability.
Changes in the Office of Public Prosecutor
In May 2018, Consuelo Porras took over from Thelma Aldana as the new Attorney General and Head of the Public Ministry. Porras had been elected to the post one month prior by President Morales. The request made by APG to strengthen the office specializing in investigating crimes against journalists, which was reiterated by the Office of the Attorney General for Human Rights in October, received no response from the Attorney General or the other members of the institution’s Head Office.
It is more concerning that Porras prohibited the Public Prosecutors for Crimes against Journalists and the Head of the Office of the Attorney General for Human Rights from participating in a presentation organized by APG in late November.
Since the creation of the Special Unit for Crimes against Journalists in the Office of the Federal Prosecutor, this was the first time that its public prosecutors had been prohibited from participating in activities organized by the Journalist Observatory and APG; incidents such as this had not occurred, not even during the tumultuous period the country went through in 2015.
RSF and APG lament the attitude of the Attorney General against the press organizations and hope her decision can be rectified in the coming months and that she will not avoid journalists’ demands.
Recommendations to the next president
Faced with the Guatemalan electoral campaign, RSF and APG urge the various presidential candidates to:
- Publicly commit themselves to respecting journalists’ and the media’s freedom of expression and avoid giving speeches that can exacerbate violence against the press. We hope this commitment to the Guatemala press does not remain solely within the realm of political discourse but rather, becomes a priority for the next administration.
RSF and APG urge the various political parties and civic committees that:
- During the electoral campaign they instruct their collaborators, candidates, political allies, or any other person with a relationship to these groups to respect the work of journalists and the news media in order to avoid such incidents as have occurred in past years.
- There should exist at the highest levels of these organizations a clear and firm stance rejecting any act committed by their members that can compromise reporters’ security or their free access to sources of information.
RSF and APG additionally urge the next president to:
- Not arbitrarily employ public resources to produce official publicity to punish or favor certain news media due to their criticisms of or publications against the central government or politicians of the official party. Official guidelines should not be used as blackmail in an attempt to modify the news media’s editorial line.
- Avoid confrontational discourse, public attacks, and defamation of the news media and journalists; on the contrary, publicly condemn any action that compromises journalists’ security or infringes on the right to freedom of expression, preventing any bad practices against the press as occurred during the Morales administration.
- The President should guarantee the implementation of the Journalist Protection Program, avoid the errors committed in the past, recognize the progress made in recent years, and respect the work performed by the Alliance of Press Entities in this initiative.
- Strengthen the capacity of security and justice institutions charged with ensuring journalists’ safety and the investigation of actions committed against them. It is not enough to increase the budget of these entities or their material resources but rather, the next administration must guarantee an increase in the staff of the Office of the Public Prosecutor and number of researchers in the Ministry of Government, ensuring their professionalism and job security as well as guaranteeing their independence in the face of any attempt to pressure them by political actors, economic powers, or higher authorities.
On May 3, in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, APG issued a report on the state of freedom of expression during the first quarter of 2019.
Guatemala is in number 116 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index published by RSF in April 2019.