Guatemala in Mexico’s footsteps: Journalism in times of violence

The slaying of Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral after a June 9 concert in Guatemala put the country in the international spotlight. Authorities have reported increasing levels of violence in Guatemala, where the murder rate is more than double that in Mexico, where fights between rival drug trafficking gangs and security forces have left more than 35,000 dead since 2006.

Journalist killings are also less common in Guatemala than in its northern neighbor, but the Press and Society Institute (IPYS in Spanish) reports that violence is limiting the media’s ability to inform and is heightening the difficulties faced by the country’s investigative reporters.

What risks are faced by journalists who cover violence daily? What implications do changes in their coverage routines have? What specific effects does the growth in violence have on journalistic coverage and on what is ultimately published? These are some of the questions that Claudia Méndez, an editor at elPeriódico and host of a news show on Canal Antigua, discussed in an interview with Clases de Periodismo.

Like their Mexican colleagues, Guatemalans live in a climate of threats, violence, and censorship. Méndez says that even though there is more press freedom in 2011 than 20 years ago and media outlets do important investigative work on corruption, “I must say that over the last several months I have seen fear and fright in our media outlets: especially on drug trafficking topics, the signals are obvious.”

“Reporter bylines have disappeared. There are topics that, as an editor, I would never ask a reporter to cover,” she explained, detailing the impact of increasing drug trafficking violence and highlighting one of the possible reasons for its explosive growth: the so-called “culture of impunity” in Guatemala.

In the interview, Méndez said that it was possible to do investigative journalism in these extreme conditions, but she stressed that many “precautions” must be taken: “After the massacre of 27 peasants on a farm in a department in the northern part of the country, reporters said: ‘We are not going to put our names on a single article.’ One of them, a young guy, was really scared. Still, we cover the issues, we go forward, but cautiously.”

In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom said Mexican drug traffickers were not only “invading” his country but the whole region: “Us Central American countries must join together to fight against them, or they will defeat us and end our democracy…we need a NATO against organized crime.”

Méndez said that Cabral’s shooting death offers the Guatemalan media an opportunity reflect on the consequences of violence and to investigate the deeper reasons for the killing. One theory that several local and international media outlets have jumped on is that gang members were after a businessman that was traveling with Cabral, not the singer himself.

Since an April 2011 report by Cerigua that highlighted the growth in self-censorship by the press in regions with high levels of drug trafficking, two journalists have been killed without charges being filed: Yensi Ordóñez and Jorge Manchamé. Additionally, banners claiming to be from Mexican drug traffickers appeared in major cities countrywide, threatening journalists over their coverage of the above peasant massacre.

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.