By Oscar Ricardo Silva and Christina Noriega
On September 13, the Guatemalan government posted photographs of an unpublished article planned to run three days later on the newspaper elPeriódico, raising questions as to whether or not the government had been spying on the newsroom.
The images, which were posted to the website of Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti before the corresponding article was published, showed portions of an elPeriódico article that linked Baldetti to businessmen who are said to have benefitted from government contracts. Later that day, elPeriódico said that photographs of the entire article appeared on the government’s homepage. The newspaper's editorial board has strongly condemned the government’s actions, which may have greater implications as to how the state is monitoring the country’s media outlets.
“Now, [the government] has done something unheard of,” elPeriódico said in a statement released Monday, September 15. “This past Saturday, September 13, a news article that will be published tomorrow was taken illegally, immorally and clandestinely by government spies.”
The article, “An Afternoon at the Vice President’s Ranch”, describes a ranch – valued at $3.2 million – owned by Roxana Baldetti, and raises questions as to how Baldetti had paid for her estate while highlighting ties to prominent businessmen working in the country. While Baldetti claimed that the property was purchased in 2008, well before she took office in January of 2012, her involvement in Guatemalan politics dates back to 2001, when she helped found the Patriot Party with Otto Perez Molina, the current president. She was elected to the Guatemalan Congress in 2004.
While the newspaper has pointed to the photographs of an unpublished article as clear evidence that the Guatemalan government is spying on them, Baldetti said on Twitter that she received a copy of the article in an envelope sent anonymously, and that she had responded to it publicly, on her website, because the newspaper had not sought her opinion on the issue in the article. She followed up with a series of tweets that appeared to emphasize her support of a free press and respect for journalistic practices, while insisting that the government does not spy on the media. Baldetti did add, however, that the government would not accept defamation or lies.
The event has spurred a rally of contentious accusations between the publication and state authorities.
According to the Presidential Communications Secretary, Francisco Cuevas, it was employees of the elPeriódico that were unhappy with the outlet’s treatment of the current administration that leaked the story to Baldetti, though he did not explain why the government chose to post a preemptive response.
A government statement claimed that elPeriódico owner José Rubén Zamora was guilty of “directing a defamation campaign against the heads of state,” adding that “an official source said [José Rubén Zamora] insists on revealing false, public information about the president and the vice president’s assets, based on unreliable sources and photo montages. This situation makes it clear that his accusations lack veracity and precision.”
The occasion was not the first time that elPeriódico had targeted Baldetti. On April 8, 2013, the newspaper published, “The fairytale without a happy ending - the history of a presidency in crisis.” In the story, journalists described numerous scandals that have surrounded the presidency while questioning the source of Baldetti’s newfound and increasing wealth. After that story was published, the newspaper underwent a cyber attack that forced its website offline and in December, 2013, a protective order was issued preventing elPeriódico founder and editor Zamora from approaching Baldetti.
In January 2014, President Otto Perez Molina filed a criminal complaint against Zamora, accusing him of coercion, blackmail, extortion, violating the constitution, and insulting the president. Even though the complaint was eventually dropped, Perez Molina said he would continue legal proceedings against Zamora in civil court and eventually, Zamora was barred from leaving the country.
Despite the international attention that has surrounded the preemptive government response to an unpublished article by elPeriódico, it would appear to be a battle that is far from over.
According to a recent Facebook post by Zamora, the newspaper is currently fighting 71 legal complaints, including slander, sedition, and violence against women. Their website has gone offline 15 times due to cyber attacks. Government actions and spying accusations prompted a visit in February, 2014 from representatives of the Inter-American Press Association (SIP), who traveled to Guatemala to investigate the current state of press freedom, changes in security protections for journalists, and allegations that the government had pressured companies not to advertise with elPeriódico.
In a statement released last week, SIP responded to recent events at elPeriódico, calling it a “new abuse on the part of the government to attack freedom of the press.”
While Zamora is still unclear as to how the government obtained the story, he believes that the government has either planted spies among the newspaper staff or illegally gained access to their offices. Regardless of how the information was obtained, Zamora claimed that it was a crude, illegal, immoral and clandestine act.”
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.