Threats, bribes and other challenges of reporting on Guatemala's elections (Interview with Héctor Cordero)

Héctor Cordero, a correspondent for Guatevisión TV in the Guatemalan department (state) of Quiché, answered questions for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas about the difficulties of being a journalist and the importance of adhering to journalistic ethics during an election season. For example, members of the Patriotic Party's communications team attacked two Channel 2 journalists at a press conference in January. Cordero, also a member of GuateDigital, a network of journalists from the interior of the country, last year received death threats after reporting on nepotism involving a local congressman.

Knight Center: What are the challenges journalists face during an election season?

Héctor Cordero: One of the most serious, I would say, are the pressures from political parties to transmit only positive news from their members, political parties, everybody wants the journalist to be exclusive to one party, and if not, that's when begin the inconveniences, marginalization in coverage, etc. And for me ,what I fear most is being in the midst of a clash between two political parties. The campaign in Quiché is becoming violent, and the closer the elections get, the more contentious it will get.

Knight Center: How is the election season different than other (more dangerous, difficult, etc.)?

Héctor Cordero: Of course it is more dangerous. There are many interests at stake, and I repeat, coverage of a political event is sometimes more difficult.

Knight Center: Can you give examples of what journalists suffer during election seasons? Specifically, what is going on now in Guatemala?

Héctor Cordero: Expulsions from assemblies when it does not suit the politicians for it to be known how they are organizing the different lists of people participating in the elections. For example, 15 days ago we were kicked out of the UNE party headquarters by two bodyguards of a deputy on the grounds that the meeting was private, clashes with security forces of candidates for local congress members and mayors, all basically because the official election campaign has not begun but all parties are already campaigning throughout Quiché. The money being spent now is tremendous, at the end of a press conference several candidates -- especially for congress -- started handing out money. They said it was to cover the journalists' expenses, and a lot of journalists accept it because they do not understand that it is a commitment so that later on if these politicians make a mistake the journalist won't publish anything. It is very difficult to deal with this. Thank God I count on the unconditional support of Noticiero Guatevisión, and this means they don't offer me money because they know I will publish it. It is important to note that much of the responsibility of receiving money in exchange for favors in the mass media lies with the media outlets, or at least the large ones,because the salaries are very low and that makes many journalists accept bribes. This is no excuse, but politicians take advantage of this, because if an event is in faraway places, they offer transportation or fuel, plus food, plus a supplementary payment. And because the election season is just starting, it is important to note that not all journalists have this kind of attitude to accept money.

Knight Center: As a journalist, how do you deal with all that is happening? What should journalists do?

Héctor Cordero: The policy we have at Noticiero Guatevisión is to give the same space to all of the political parties, and that is what we are doing. With respect to my safety, I change all of m habits, taking different routes to work, not working too late or at night, not accepting money so I'm not beholden to anyone, being aware of the safety of my family.

Knight Center: What does all of this mean for the state of journalism? For the state of democracy in Guatemala?

Héctor Cordero: Democracy in my country, and especially the region where I work, is worrisome. Democracy has been misrepresented, and there is a lot of disenchantment among the people in respect to elections. Why? The positions (on the ballot) for congress members and mayors have converted into a big business. In Quiché, the top place on the ballot for a congress member if the party is well-represented costs up to 2 million Quetzales (roughly U.S. $250,000), which means these spots fo to businessmen or ex-Congress members who have gotten rich with government money. Of course, the consequences are disastrous, because people are elected who perhaps are successful at a particular business but don't know anything about the Republic's Congress. There have been cases of persons who barely know how to read and write and eventually they become merchants of the law, charging to approve a law, and forgetting the promises they made during the election campaign. In the end, I believe this will all collapse if there are not profound changes made to the electoral law and political parties, because the people who are real community leaders generally don't participate in politics because the costs are too high. There is talk of financing by drug trafficking in the election campaigns, however as it is never said where the funding is coming from, we will never know who is doing this. But generally journalists don't touch this because it is highly sensitive and their families run a lot of risk.

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.