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Watchdog: Guatemala Needs to Win Back Trust of Media

FILE - Then-Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales speaks at the United Nations, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. Guatemalan journalists interviewed by the Committee to Protect Journalists said conditions deteriorated for them during Morales' time in office.

Guatemala’s fractured relationship with the press is being put to the test during the fight to contain the coronavirus, a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists found.

At a time when Guatemalans need access to independent reporting on the coronavirus, conditions for press freedom are “unsound,” CPJ said.

The report released Friday found that years of legal harassment, orchestrated online attacks, threats of violence, and impunity in attacks on the press have left the country’s journalists wary of the government.

Guatemalan journalists interviewed by CPJ said conditions deteriorated under former President Jimmy Morales, who attempted to discredit or undermine media covering the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Morales disbanded the independent body that was set up to investigate corruption in Guatemala. Its lead prosecutor was barred from entering the country in 2018, and Morales declined to extend the CICIG’s mandate when it expired in September.

Morales told a news conference in Guatemala City last year that he ordered prosecutors to start investigating allegations that the commission had acted outside the law and abused its power.

FILE - Alejandro Giammattei, accompanied by his daughter, Ana Marcela, waves to the crowd after he was sworn in as president of Guatemala at the National Theater in Guatemala City, Jan. 14, 2020.
FILE - Alejandro Giammattei, accompanied by his daughter, Ana Marcela, waves to the crowd after he was sworn in as president of Guatemala at the National Theater in Guatemala City, Jan. 14, 2020.

President Alejandro Giammattei, who was elected in August, has an opportunity to redress challenges for the media and regain their trust, CPJ said.

The press freedom group called on officials to decriminalize defamation, investigate digital and physical attacks on the press, and ensure the media have easy access to information.

Natalie Southwick, head of CPJ's Central and South America program, told VOA that Giammattei appeared open to better relations with the press.

“It is encouraging to see that Guatemala has not followed the troubling example of some other countries in the region that have used the pandemic as a pretext to roll back constitutional protections for free expression or closed off access to information,” Southwick said.

“However, it's important to remember that the Guatemalan government has previously implemented similar measures imposing martial law and other restrictions in some regions of the country due to violence or other incidents, and those conditions have absolutely restricted the work of journalists,” she said.

Risk in environmental reporting

Environmental reporting, including coverage of corruption or illegal mining and extraction industries, increased the risk of attack or arrest for indigenous journalists or those reporting from rural regions, the report found.

CPJ interviewed Carlos Choc, a reporter from the local news website Prensa Comunitaria, who was forced into hiding after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.

At the time, Choc and his outlet were investigating allegations of pollution in Guatemala’s Lake Izabal region and clashes between police and protesters.

Choc told CPJ he believed the warrant, which accused him of illegal protest and other crimes, was an attempt by authorities to silence him.

The report found indigenous radio stations were also at a disadvantage, with license frequencies auctioned at prices beyond their means. Because of the cost and other challenges, local broadcasters often operate on illegal frequencies.

“Even without the context of a global pandemic, it's absolutely fundamental that rural and indigenous journalists and communities outside of the major cities have access to radio frequencies as a means to share information and keep their communities informed and safe,” Southwick said.

Radio is the preferred means of communication in remote regions, where internet access is limited or Spanish is not the predominant language, she said.

The Guatemala Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Positive steps

The report noted some positive developments from the government. The attorney general in December announced it was expanding a special prosecutor’s office that investigates crimes against journalists, and the president’s office has said it is committed to greater transparency.

The CPJ said that the government needed to do more to tackle online harassment and smear campaigns against journalists who report critically on politics or business, and that it should set up a journalist protection plan that officials committed to eight years ago.

Editor’s note: An editor of this article formerly worked at the Committee to Protect Journalists and helped edit its Guatemala report.