Guatemalan journalists opt for self-censorship to protect themselves from threats, according to a recent IACHR report

In a report about human rights in Guatemala published on March 14, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern about attacks in recent months against journalists whose investigative work was related to corruption, public administration and human rights violations.

The IACHR report “Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala: Diversity, Inequality and Exclusion” highlighted, in its subsection on journalists and freedom of speech, that dozens of journalists and media outlets in the country have opted for self-censorship to protect themselves from attacks and threats received during the turbulent electoral year of 2015.

The State Attorney’s Office for Crimes Against Journalists in Guatemala, the report noted, received 81 complaints of attacks against journalists between January and August 2015, exceeding the number of complaints documented in the last three years.

In the October 2014 IACHR hearing about the situation of human rights defenders in Guatemala, the Unit for Investigation of Crimes against Journalists reported that it has opened 44 cases for attacks against 89 journalists, 19 of whom were women. A majority of the attacks came from public officials.

The government of then-president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, who has been indicted for corruption and customs fraud, denied this allegation. Also, Pérez Molina announced during his tenure, in November 2013, the creation of institutional mechanisms for the protection of journalists and human rights defenders that could be at risk because of their work. The mechanism still has not been created.

In fact, in March of 2015, three media workers were assassinated in Guatemala, all in the southern department of Suchitepéquez.

On March 10, 2015, in broad daylight and in the main park in the municipality of Mazatenango, Danilo López, 38, and Federico Salazar, 32, were shot in front of the Suchitepéquez departmental government building. The aforementioned journalists worked for Prensa Libre and Radio Nuevo Mundo, respectively. The third was Guido Villatoro, 20, a cameraman for Servicable , who was gunned down on March 13 outside his workplace.

“Journalist Danilo López had given an interview on February 20, 2014, in which he said he feared for the possible consequences of his investigations. He had reported on operations by organized criminal groups, police corruption, and drug trafficking,” the organization’s report highlighted.

The IACHR report noted that in April 2015, several press associations called on the State, before the end of Pérez Molina’s government, to comply with the implementation of the Program for the Protection of Journalists and Social Communicators, and to include journalists and social communicators in the process.

However, in 2014 the IACHR received information that indicated that the mechanism had not been allocated its own budget for implementation, according to the report.

It is because of this that the body of the Organization of American States (OAS) and its Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression propose in their report, focused on the situation in Guatemala, the following parameters for the implementation of the programs for journalist protection: “political commitments of the State, which must include an appropriate legal framework; sufficient well-trained staff, who inspire confidence in the beneficiaries of the protection provided”.

They also consider it important that there exist a budget to cover the costs for personnel for the program, as well as costs related to the protection measures. Another aspect to consider, according to the organization, is the adoption of rules that will clearly outline the spheres of competence and the responsibilities of the authorities that intervene in the implementation and oversight of the protection measures.

For the Special Rapporteur, the document notes, it is of vital importance that in any country, in this case Guatemala, there exists a “democratic debate that is free, robust, and without restrictions.” Because of this, they make a serious call to combat violence against journalists through comprehensive institutional policies of prevention, protection, and justice.

One of the premises with which the IACHR concluded its recommendations on freedom of expression in the report about Guatemala, issuing a call to the government and civil society, is to protect the lives and integrity of those who suffer a “differentiated impact” in society as they defend their human rights. It also recommended abstaining from making declarations that may stigmatize or discredit human rights defenders, journalists, and traditional authorities.

“Respect for the exercise of freedom of expression is a priority of the Commission’s agenda when it reviews the human rights situation of any member state of the Organization of American States,” the IACHR report on the Central American country highlighted.

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.