Environment of fear affects electoral coverage in Guatemala

By Carolina Peredo

After fracturing her jaw with a single stroke, Susana Morazán’s aggressors made a threat: “stop talking bad about the government.” The event took place on Jan. 19, when two men riding motorcycles intercepted the TV Azteca Guatemala host while she was driving her car, according to Prensa Libre.​

Morazán’s case is one of the many recent threats and attacks that Guatemalan journalists have faced at the onset of the country’s electoral campaign ahead of  general elections this coming September. Similarly, Juan Luis Font, director of the weekly magazine Contrapoder, and Pedro Trujillo, Prensa Libre columnist, were threatened after criticizing Manuel Baldizón, the Libertad Democrática Renovada (Renewed Democratic Liberty) party pre-candidate.

But signs of hostility were visible in the country before the electoral campaign kicked off. Late last year, for example, elPeriódico accused the government of spying on their newsroom.

It was in this context that the Center of Informative Reports of Guatemala, Cerigua, issued a statement repudiating the “various assaults on members of the press in recent days, which demonstrate the vulnerability of national journalists and communication workers, especially those who work in the interior.”

In the same statement, the Journalist Observatory of Cerigua denounced the failure of the government’s Program to Protect Journalists, which was announced May 3, 2012 and signed into effect in 2013. “The construction of this mechanism has not experienced any advances apart from the legal documents and national and international bureaucratic reunions,” Cerigua representatives said.

“The goal, apart from protecting the lives of journalists, is to reach a process of judicialization and to send the intellectual authors of these threats to court,”  a government spokesman said in 2013, when Guatemala decided to implement a journalist protection plan similar to the ones already existing in Mexico and Colombia.

The Journalist Observatory of Cerigua reported 195 registered violations to freedom of expression and the press in Guatemala between January 2012 and November 2014.

After Morazán’s recent attack, President Otto Pérez Molina’s spokesman immediately took steps to disassociate the government with the event. While the journalist sought justice immediately after the attack, the case still remains unresolved.

The Association of Guatemalan Journalists (APG) issued a statement warning that “a hostile and dangerous atmosphere is being created to thwart journalism in Guatemala ahead of elections,” according to The Tico Times. They also indicated their concern with the threats directed towards Font and Trujillo and that “the situation [had] worsened since the accusation was made by media outlets supposedly serving a running politician.”

In 2013, Guatemala was among the 15 most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism, according to an annual report from the Press Emblem Campaign, an international non-profit organization based in Geneva striving to protect journalists.

During an interview conducted by Mexican publication Lado B, Ileana Alamilla, the director of Cerigua, said that the recent attacks on freedom of expression have to be examined as “a direct message during the start of an electoral year in which we should be attentive. Now, it is not only a question of self-censorship, of publicizing something or not, but of understanding that if they can silence someone relatively important, they can silence anyone. If they silence a single person, they silence everybody. That, in substance, is the problem.”

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.