Guatemalan journalists meet to improve election coverage and strengthen digital reporting network

By Nuri Vallbona

The meeting began with a moment of silence for slain television journalist Yensi Roberto Ordoñez Galdamez. Nearly 80 journalists bowed their heads as they gathered for the “3rd International Meeting of Journalists from the Departments and the Capital of Guatemala.” Their mission: to bring journalists together for training and dialogue in hopes of improving coverage of the upcoming elections.

“It’s a great reminder of the dangers that face journalists in Guatemala in this election season as it gets underway,” said María Emilia Martín, director of Gracias Vida Center for Media and organizer of the conference, which was held in Antigua, Guatemala, on May 26-28. The event was partially sponsored by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

“This year we’re seeing a lot of pressure … not only from the (political) parties but from the drug cartels. It comes in the form of threats,” Martín added.

Martín believes that bringing together journalists from the capital with those from outlying states or “departments” will improve communication and cooperation between the two groups. Another goal was to train and strengthen the Red GuateDigital, or GuateDigital Network which is made up of journalists from the interior of Guatemala.

“It’s important that there is a momentum to build the organization and to continue the dialogue about the need to build a stronger organization that represents the journalists who work in the rural areas and the provincial capitals of this country,” said Martín.

Panelist Alva Batres, president of the Izabal Journalists Association, an organization based in the Izabal department, hopes that convincing journalists to join forces will empower them and increase their security as they tackle issues in the upcoming elections.

“We proceed from the principle that unity creates strength,” Batres said, “...when one person alone, one journalist alone stands up to defend their point of view or to defend their own physical integrity, it’s very difficult. But when it’s done at the network level, the union level, like I was saying, at the level of organized groups, then the state, the authorities and civil society think twice. They listen more to the clamor of an organization than to the individual person.”

One strategy that panelists suggested was for journalists to put aside competition and go out in groups of three or more, especially in remote areas where acquiring information can be difficult.

Another suggestion was for reporters to be more professional and ethical. Jorge Luis Sierra, a Mexican journalist who has covered elections along the U.S.-Mexico border, stressed that they "have to be professionals in all the meaning of that word. In those contexts, being professional doesn't end the risk of being attacked or violently pressured, but at least reduces it significantly." Sierra, who is currently a Knight International Journalism Fellow, also added that “being ethical, independent and balanced is crucial, not only to produce a good quality coverage, but also to reduce risk.”

Among other panelists presenting were Claudia Méndez Arriaza, a reporter from el Periodico and Canal Antigua, William Lopez, a radio producer and board member of GuateDigital, and journalists from Plaza Publica, an online newspaper in Guatemala.

Sponsors included the International Center for Journalists, the U.S. Embassy, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and Gracias Vida.

During past GuateDigital meetings, the Knight Center has helped sponsor and train journalists with digital workshops on how to blog, how to edit video and audio, and how to create multimedia packages. In 2005, the training event was held two months before Hurricane Stan hit Guatemala. The sessions helped Guatemalan journalists report on the destruction while giving their audiences crucial information about relief efforts.

This year the Knight Center's sponsorship provided travel grants to journalists who wouldn't have been able to attend otherwise. “How great it was that we could bring all the journalists that wanted to come. In the end we had twice as many journalists participate,” said Martín. “I think it was a total success.”

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.