Rising attacks against journalists in Guatemala cause concern for press advocates

By Aileen Ford

In the first six months of 2015 alone, there were 59 documented attacks against journalists in Guatemala, according to a report released last week by the Observatory for Journalists of the Center for Informative Reports about Guatemala (CERIGUA for its acronym in Spanish).

During this brief period, CERIGUA, a national alternative news agency in Guatemala dedicated to investigative reporting and public monitoring, documented multiple types of aggressions against journalists. These included: threats (14), intimidation (10), obstruction of sources (6), judicial harassment (3), as well as physical and verbal assaults, destruction of equipment, and closure of community media outlets.

These figures came out just days after CERIGUA issued an alert on July 1st to express its concern about an escalating number of attacks against journalists in the prior month. In 2014, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had previously stated that “violence and instability caused by organized crime and corruption” allowed most assaults against journalists in Guatemala to go unsolved.

According to CERIGUA’s latest figures, the reported attacks against journalists concentrated in the southwest departments of Guatemala (30), Suchitepéquez (9), and Quetzaltenango (4). Attacks also occurred in the northern departments of Izabal (3), Quiché (3), and Huehuetenango (2). In the majority of these incidents, Guatemalan authorities (12), security forces (9), political parties (7), and hit men (4) were implicated as suspected culprits.

Journalists’ Murder Draw International Attention

In the first half of 2015, three journalists were murdered in Guatemala. This represented a sharp increase over 2014, when CPJ data show that no journalists were reported murdered. By comparison, four journalists were killed in the country in 2013.

On March 10, 2015, Danilo López and Federico Salazar were shot to death by assailants while covering an official government event in the center of Mazatenango, a city located in the department of Suchitepéquez. Local reporter Marvin Túnchez was also injured in the attack. At the time, López was working as a reporter for Prensa Libre, one of Guatemala’s most influential newspapers, while Salazar covered news and sports at Radio Nuevo Mundo.

Just three days later, on March 13, 2015, twenty-year-old Guido Villatoro was gunned down as he entered the offices of Servicable, a local channel in Suchitepéquez, where he worked as a reporter and cameraman. According to the New York Times, investigators believed Villatoro was murdered because his employer refused to make an extortion payment.   

According to an article by Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its acronym in French), Suchitepéquez is where the most serious attacks against journalists have taken place in Guatemala in recent years. RSF noted that on August 12, 2013, journalist Fredy Rodas escaped an attempted murder in the department, as did Nery Morales in mid-February 2014. One week later, however, Carlos Alberto Orellana Chávez was killed there.

A civil servant in the special Prosecutors Office for Crimes against Journalists in Guatemala’s Public Ministry told the publication Plaza Pública that just one hour before his death, Danilo López had called the Office to say that he felt afraid and sensed a “charged atmosphere” around him after receiving threats related to critical articles he had written about various department officials.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) quickly condemned the journalists’ murders, and urged the Guatemalan government to determine whether the motive of the crimes was related to the victims’ profession. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova echoed this concern, stating that the “cold-blooded murder of Danilo López and Federico Salazar must not go unpunished”.

With the additional deaths of López, Salazar, and Villatoro, seven media workers have now been killed during the government of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, according to policy journal Americas Quarterly. Despite repeated calls for the government to conduct effective and thorough investigations of these murders, CERIGUA affirms that the vast majority remain in impunity.

Rising violence against communications professionals comes as Guatemala prepares for general elections this September. In February of this year, the Knight Center reported on the environment of fear and intimidation that affected press coverage of the election campaigns. More recent attacks against the press demonstrate continued insecurity for journalists in the Northern Triangle country.

Guatemala currently ranks 124 out of 180 countries on RSF’s 2015 world press freedom index.

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.