Attacks on the Press

Attacks on the Press 2003: Guatemala

Seven years after the government and former guerrillas signed the last of a series of peace accords ending Guatemala's 36-year civil conflict, the nation continued its struggle with a legacy of massive human rights violations and impunity.

As relations between the government and the local press became more hostile, the number of attacks and threats against journalists increased significantly in 2003, making Guatemala one of the most dangerous places in the Americas to work as a journalist. That, along with a general increase in crime and violence during an election year, added to the tense political environment.

Although Guatemalan journalists express their views freely, many suffer retaliation for what they publish. Journalists who report on such sensitive topics as human rights, government corruption, and crime faced death threats and harassment by politicians, drug traffickers, and organized crime groups. The situation is even more difficult for provincial journalists, who are often pressured by local politicians.

During the run-up to the November 9 general elections, attacks and threats against journalists intensified. In one of the most serious incidents, José Rubén Zamora, publisher of the Guatemala City daily elPeriódico and a former CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient, was attacked at his home on June 24 by a group of men who held him and his family for two hours. The men put a gun to Zamora's head and told him they were going to execute him. They also told Zamora they knew his family's routine and would kill them if he reported the attack. According to Zamora, an underground group with government connections may have been responsible for the incident.

On July 24 and 25, followers of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, founder of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party, held violent protests in several areas of the capital, Guatemala City. The protesters, who were armed with sticks and machetes--and, according to some reports, firearms--burned tires, threw stones at buildings, and erected barricades to demand that Ríos Montt be allowed to run for president. The Constitutional Court twice rejected Ríos Montt's candidacy in the 1990s because Article 186 of the Guatemalan Constitution bars coup leaders and former dictators from running for president.

Some protesters turned their wrath against journalists who were covering the protests, threatening, harassing, and attacking them. Reporter Héctor Ramírez died from a heart attack after being assaulted and chased by protesters. Despite the violence, the police did not act to disperse the protesters. Subsequently, Ramírez's family filed a criminal complaint against President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, Ríos Montt, and several government ministers and high-ranking FRG officials, accusing them of being responsible for the journalist's death.

Prompted by these numerous press freedom abuses, CPJ sent a delegation to Guatemala in October. In meetings with journalists from several media outlets, CPJ Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría and Research Associate Sauro González Rodríguez confirmed the existence of a threatening climate for the press there. In addition, the delegation found that the lack of concrete results in investigations of attacks against journalists has reinforced the climate of impunity that prevails in the country.

The CPJ delegation also met with human rights activists, staff from the U.N. Verification Mission in Guatemala, and government officials. During one of the meetings, Marco Antonio Cortez, the Attorney General's Office's special prosecutor for crimes against journalists and trade unionists, told CPJ that because of the July violence and the Ramírez family's criminal complaint, he had asked the Supreme Court to initiate preliminary proceedings (antejuicios) against President Portillo, Ríos Montt, and senior officials to determine if their immunity can be lifted so they can be tried as private citizens. The proceedings had not yet begun at year's end.

In a press conference held at the conclusion of its mission, CPJ urged the government to speak publicly in support of press freedom, to end the impunity surrounding the threats and attacks against journalists, to investigate intimidation by armed underground groups, and to dismantle those groups. CPJ also called on presidential candidates to refrain from making statements that could be interpreted as license to attack journalists covering the elections.

Meanwhile, President Portillo maintained that the media have diversified and grown during his four years in office. But he continued to accuse the local press of ignoring his achievements and of serving the interests of local oligarchs. "There are some powerful people who feel they own the country, who have companies, who have banks, who have farms, who have television programs, who have newspapers.... They disrespect the people, they disrespect politicians, they disrespect peasants," Portillo stated in an October 17 speech.

The ownership of Guatemalan media is highly concentrated. Media tycoon Remigio Ángel González, a Mexican national, controls the broadcasting media. Through front companies, González owns all four of Guatemala's network television stations, which violates constitutional provisions against both monopolies and foreign ownership of the media. González, who also owns a leading radio network, wields enormous influence over Guatemalan politics. According to local press reports, González is so powerful that political candidates often try to secure his endorsement before the elections because they know he controls all the TV stations and can determine how much airtime they receive.

A few economically powerful business groups own the country's leading dailies: the more serious papers Prensa Libre, Siglo Veintiuno, and elPeriódico, as well as the tabloids Nuestro Diario and Al Día. Human rights groups and some journalists criticize the print media for being too focused on events in the capital, Guatemala City, at the expense of developments in the interior of the country. Some sectors of the population, particularly peasants and indigenous peoples, are routinely excluded from the news agenda.

Two years after the murder of radio journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz, no one has been tried for the crime. Alegría, who was murdered in September 2001 outside his home in the Caribbean port city of Puerto Barrios, hosted an afternoon call-in show that often discussed corruption and official misconduct. The three men allegedly hired to kill Alegría remain in jail awaiting trial. In September 2003, a judge ordered the detention of FRG parliamentary deputy David Pineda, who is accused of masterminding the murder, after the Supreme Court of Justice lifted his immunity from prosecution.

SEVEN YEARS AFTER THE GOVERNMENT AND FORMER GUERRILLAS SIGNED the last of a series of peace accords ending Guatemala's 36-year civil conflict, the nation continued its struggle with a legacy of massive human rights violations and impunity.

As relations between the government and the local press became more hostile, the number of attacks and threats against journalists increased significantly in 2003, making Guatemala one of the most dangerous places in the Americas to work as a journalist. That, along with a general increase in crime and violence during an election year, added to the tense political environment.

Although Guatemalan journalists express their views freely, many suffer retaliation for what they publish. Journalists who report on such sensitive topics as human rights, government corruption, and crime faced death threats and harassment by politicians, drug traffickers, and organized crime groups. The situation is even more difficult for provincial journalists, who are often pressured by local politicians.

During the run-up to the November 9 general elections, attacks and threats against journalists intensified. In one of the most serious incidents, José Rubén Zamora, publisher of the Guatemala City daily elPeriódico and a former CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient, was attacked at his home on June 24 by a group of men who held him and his family for two hours. The men put a gun to Zamora's head and told him they were going to execute him. They also told Zamora they knew his family's routine and would kill them if he reported the attack. According to Zamora, an underground group with government connections may have been responsible for the incident.

On July 24 and 25, followers of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, founder of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party, held violent protests in several areas of the capital, Guatemala City. The protesters, who were armed with sticks and machetes--and, according to some reports, firearms--burned tires, threw stones at buildings, and erected barricades to demand that Ríos Montt be allowed to run for president. The Constitutional Court twice rejected Ríos Montt's candidacy in the 1990s because Article 186 of the Guatemalan Constitution bars coup leaders and former dictators from running for president.

Some protesters turned their wrath against journalists who were covering the protests, threatening, harassing, and attacking them. Reporter Héctor Ramírez died from a heart attack after being assaulted and chased by protesters. Despite the violence, the police did not act to disperse the protesters. Subsequently, Ramírez's family filed a criminal complaint against President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, Ríos Montt, and several government ministers and high-ranking FRG officials, accusing them of being responsible for the journalist's death.

Prompted by these numerous press freedom abuses, CPJ sent a delegation to Guatemala in October. In meetings with journalists from several media outlets, CPJ Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría and Research Associate Sauro González Rodríguez confirmed the existence of a threatening climate for the press there. In addition, the delegation found that the lack of concrete results in investigations of attacks against journalists has reinforced the climate of impunity that prevails in the country.

The CPJ delegation also met with human rights activists, staff from the U.N. Verification Mission in Guatemala, and government officials. During one of the meetings, Marco Antonio Cortez, the Attorney General's Office's special prosecutor for crimes against journalists and trade unionists, told CPJ that because of the July violence and the Ramírez family's criminal complaint, he had asked the Supreme Court to initiate preliminary proceedings (antejuicios) against President Portillo, Ríos Montt, and senior officials to determine if their immunity can be lifted so they can be tried as private citizens. The proceedings had not yet begun at year's end.

In a press conference held at the conclusion of its mission, CPJ urged the government to speak publicly in support of press freedom, to end the impunity surrounding the threats and attacks against journalists, to investigate intimidation by armed underground groups, and to dismantle those groups. CPJ also called on presidential candidates to refrain from making statements that could be interpreted as license to attack journalists covering the elections.

Meanwhile, President Portillo maintained that the media have diversified and grown during his four years in office. But he continued to accuse the local press of ignoring his achievements and of serving the interests of local oligarchs. "There are some powerful people who feel they own the country, who have companies, who have banks, who have farms, who have television programs, who have newspapers.... They disrespect the people, they disrespect politicians, they disrespect peasants," Portillo stated in an October 17 speech.

The ownership of Guatemalan media is highly concentrated. Media tycoon Remigio Ángel González, a Mexican national, controls the broadcasting media. Through front companies, González owns all four of Guatemala's network television stations, which violates constitutional provisions against both monopolies and foreign ownership of the media. González, who also owns a leading radio network, wields enormous influence over Guatemalan politics. According to local press reports, González is so powerful that political candidates often try to secure his endorsement before the elections because they know he controls all the TV stations and can determine how much airtime they receive.

A few economically powerful business groups own the country's leading dailies: the more serious papers Prensa Libre, Siglo Veintiuno, and elPeriódico, as well as the tabloids Nuestro Diario and Al Día. Human rights groups and some journalists criticize the print media for being too focused on events in the capital, Guatemala City, at the expense of developments in the interior of the country. Some sectors of the population, particularly peasants and indigenous peoples, are routinely excluded from the news agenda.

Two years after the murder of radio journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz, no one has been tried for the crime. Alegría, who was murdered in September 2001 outside his home in the Caribbean port city of Puerto Barrios, hosted an afternoon call-in show that often discussed corruption and official misconduct. The three men allegedly hired to kill Alegría remain in jail awaiting trial. In September 2003, a judge ordered the detention of FRG parliamentary deputy David Pineda, who is accused of masterminding the murder, after the Supreme Court of Justice lifted his immunity from prosecution.

Published

Like this article? Support our work