After years of threats and attacks, Guatemalan journalist is now being pressured indirectly

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  • January 6, 2013

By Alejandro Martínez

Guatemalan journalist Héctor Cordero is known for three things: for being the only full-time journalist covering the department of El Quiché for a national TV newscast, for his relentless reports on corruption and abuse of authority, and for regularly angering public officials in the region. In the current struggle over political power in El Quiché, Cordero has become an extremely bothersome figure for the department's ruling class.

Cordero has been the target of constant threats and physical aggressions for the last five years, but the attempts to silence him have recently taken a different, more effective form: since October last year, political forces in the region have successfully shut him out of several media outlets where he used to work.

But besides cutting him off from his audience, these pressures have also succeeded in reducing Cordero's sources of income. Now, the reporter that couldn't be silenced with beatings and threats is wondering whether he'll be able to continue looking after his family working in journalism.

"They are drowning me in this way," said Cordero in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. "I'll be honest, I don't know how much more I can take. You can't go on with something that is not helping you produce."

Cordero said it all began late last year, when he put together a story on the salaries of several local officials for Chichicastenango's Channel 4, where Cordero used to work as the administrator. Congressman Jimmy Ren -- a former correspondent for Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, Cordero's former friend and a stakeholder at the cable company that runs Channel 4 -- ordered Cordero not to run the story, but he refused and the segment was televised. The next day, Cordero was removed as the Channel's administrator and his newscast was discontinued.

Early this year, Ren and Congressman Estuardo Galdámez -- another influential figure in El Quiché who has been put in uncomfortable positions before by Cordero's reports -- demanded that Cordero was fired from cable TV channel Guatevisión, where he works as a national correspondent covering the region. Cordero said the congressmen accused him of only reporting "bad news about the department."

Guatevisión did not fire Cordero but, in the following months, several of the regional media outlets where Cordero used to work as a freelancer began telling him they couldn't employ him any more. Officially, Cordero was told resources were scarce, but several colleagues told him the TV stations were under intense political pressure not to let him work with them any longer.

“Out of six TV newscasts I used to work for, now I only have one and my job with Guatevisión. There isn't anyone else here in El Quiché,” Cordero said.

As a result, Cordero lost more than 50 percent of the earnings he used to make a few months ago. Cordero is worried he won't be able to continue supporting his wife and two children in his current situation.

Power struggle

Cordero said he suspects that the recent pressures are partly the result of the current struggle over political control in El Quiché, which is intensifying by the day.

El Quiché is a department with a high levels of poverty and a mainly indigenous population. The Ixil region, which includes the municipalities of Santa María Nebaj, San Gaspar Chajul and San Juan Cotzal, is one of the largest electoral districts in the department. And in a region where an important number of votes are at stake, what's said and not said in the media becomes crucial.

Cordero recently suffered from the pressures of this power struggle during his coverage of the reactions in the Ixil region of the trial against former military leader Efraín Ríos Montt, who is accused of being one of the intellectual authors of the genocide of 1,771 Ixil Indians between 1982 and 1983.

Cordero has received threats from Ríos Montt supporters and, recently, during his coverage of a local celebration over the annulation of the sentence against Ríos Montt, he found himself in Santa María Nebaj surrounded by about 300 people who angrily criticized him for his prior stories on events organized by victims groups.

For Cordero, the threats are not so much about people's opinions on the Ríos Montt case as they are about the balance of power in the region.

In Santa María Nebaj, for example, people who sympathize with Ríos Montt are for the most part aligned with a local politician with the country's ruling party who is challenging the current mayor. The latter, in turn, has expressed his support to victims groups.

This is the real goal, Cordero said: to silence independent voices so political powers can present the messages and images of their choosing.

"Many interests are behind this. I believe that all these threats come from the political sphere," Cordero said.

Regional journalists, vulnerable targets

Cordero's case illustrates the difficulties regional journalists in Guatemala often have to face.

In 2011, after local elections took place, Cordero was severely beaten by individuals who were later identified as bodyguards for Congressman Mario Rivera. Cordero suspects his coverage of corruption complaints against several candidates provoked the attack.

And in 2010, when he reported on accusations of nepotism against a relative of Congressman Lester Reyna, Cordero received several threats by phone. The incident made the director of Guatevisión condemn the attacks and publicly accuse Reyna of being behind the intimidations.

“Being a journalist in the provinces is not easy because they often face, on their own, political powers that [...] want to have a muzzled press at their sevice," said Guatevisión's director Haroldo Hernández.

Political pressures on journalists have increased in the last several years as journalism training and culture has improved among members of the regional press, said María Martin, director of the journalism training organization in Guatemala Gracias Vida.

“What happened in the departments and rural communities wasn't really covered in a consistent manner before. The capital's main media outlets would only come when there was a lynching or a natural disaster," she said. "Now that journalists are telling stories of abuse of authority and corruption, the political class are blaming the journalists and unfortunately there has been a backlash."

"It is very difficult in all of Guatemala to practice an independent brand of journalism because there are so many political pressures, specially in the departments," she added.

Cordero is well aware of the price he has had to pay for trying to remain critical and impartial.

“Being in the center has been the cause of all of this," he said. "I could have come to an agreement with the government like many other colleagues but I've always thought that what's the point of having gotten into this if I'm not going to do it right."



Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.