The number of press freedom violations increased sharply in 2003. In this report, Reporters Without Borders details some 30 cases of threats or physical attacks against journalists while Marco Cortez, a judge tasked with investigating press freedom violations, said more than 60 journalists were threatened.
The Guatemalan press has to deal with a ruling elite and an army that still do not tolerate criticism well, especially when journalists take an interest in corruption scandals or the human rights violations that took place during the civil war. Tailing, threats, physical attacks - many forms of intimidation are used.
A raid by gunmen on the home of elPeriódico publisher José Rubén Zamora at the end of June was one of the most disturbing cases of violence as it recalled the raids carried out against news media when the country was at war. Zamora had exposed corruption scandals in his newspaper. He had also filed a complaint in which he claimed that he had been the target of harassment and intimidation by President Alfonso Portillo. The complaint could have led to Portillo being stripped of his immunity.
But 2003’s especially high number of violations was above all due to the holding of presidential and legislative elections. There was considerable tension as a result of the determination of the head of congress, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, to be a presidential candidate in defiance of an article in the 1985 constitution barring anyone who has overthrown a constitutional government from being president. Ríos Montt’s 18 months in power at the head of a military junta in 1982-83 were one of the bloodiest periods in a civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996.
Despite this constitutional provision - and after much wrangling - the supreme court finally ruled that Ríos Montt could be the presidential candidate of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). But only after he had put considerable pressure on the court, his political opponents and human rights groups alleged. Bused into the capital, Ríos Montt supporters demanding acceptance of his right to be a candidate spread terror in the city’s streets on 24 and 25 July in a show of raw force typical of the past, but which Guatemalans had not expected to see again.
It left one journalist dead and several others wounded, including two journalists who demonstrators tried to burn alive. In the weeks that followed, journalists who tried to complain about this outrage found themselves targeted in turn. Police chief Raul Manchame was dismissed on 28 July, but no one else was held to account and the FRG stuck to the fiction that it was not involved.
The violence abated after the first round of the election on 9 November, in which Ríos Montt came third with 19.31 per cent of the vote and was therefore eliminated from the run-off. The campaign for the second round on 28 December - won by businessman Oscar Berger Perdomo of the conservative Grand National Alliance (GANA) - was much calmer for the press.
A journalist killed
Hector Ramírez, 61, who worked for Radio Sonora and the TV news programme "Notisiete" on Canal 7, died of a heart attack as supporters of the ruling FRG party chased him through the streets of Guatemala City on 24 July 2003. Demanding that Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt be allowed to run as the FRG’s presidential candidate, the FRG supporters blocked access to various public institutions for several hours and attacked journalists who went to cover their protest. The police made only desultory attempts to intervene.
New information on a journalist killed before 2003
Congressman David Pineda was arrested and imprisoned on 9 September on suspicion of instigating the 6 September 2001 murder of journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendariz in Puerto Barrios, in the eastern department of Izabal, which Pineda represents. He was arrested after being questioned for several hours by Miguel Angel Gálvez, the judge in charge of the investigation. Pineda was already being prosecuted for alleged fraud and embezzlement while mayor of Puerto Barrios from 1996 to 1999. He had already been arrested in May, but had been released.
Three other people were detained for their presumed role in the murder: Jairo Humberto Gómez Sandoval and Estuardo Benjamín Orozco Estrada (the alleged hitmen) and Jorge Mario Chigua, who was Puerto Barrios mayor from 1999 to 2001. Chigua was subsequently freed on bail in the absence of decisive proof of his involvement. A judge previously in charge of the case, Manuel Barquín, escaped a murder attempt unhurt on 10 April. Alegría presented the programme "Linea Directa" on the Puerto Barrios-based radio station Radio Amatique, in which he exposed political corruption.
Four journalists kidnapped
Four journalists with the daily Prensa Libre - reporters Fredy López and Alberto Ramírez and photographers Emerson Díaz and Mario Linares - were taken hostage in the western province of Huehuetenango on 26 October 2003 by former paramilitaries demanding government compensation for the support they gave the army during the 1960-1996 civil war. López and Díaz Ramírez were abducted at a roadblock while covering Gen. Ríos Montt’s campaign. The other two were captured when they went to investigate the abduction of their colleagues. They were all freed on 29 October after a governmental commission tasked with negotiating their release said their kidnappers’ demands would be met. "They were angry, but they did not treat us badly," said Linares, who also freelances for the news agency Reuters.
13 journalists physically attacked
Elizabel Enriquez of the Centro de Reportes Informativos sobre Guatemala (Cerigua) news agency was threatened and hit as she arrived at her office on 23 February 2003. Maricely Enriquez of the same agency was attacked a few metres from the office the week before. Cerigua specialises in reports about human rights. When created in 1983, it was linked to the URNG guerrilla alliance, which is now a political party.
Cerigua reporter Rualdo Hernández was attacked on 12 May as he left the agency’s offices to cover a story. Eight armed men surrounded him and forced him to hand over documents and a laptop belonging to the agency, as well as money and his identity papers.
Twelve gunmen who were not masked forced their way into the home of José Rubén Zamora, the publisher of the daily elPeriódico, on 24 June, passing themselves off as policemen and officials from the prosecutor’s office. They hit him and two of his children, accused him of attacking "the people at the top," threatened him with reprisals if he talked about their visit, and finally left after three hours. Noticing that he was being followed by suspicious-looking vehicles in the days that followed, Zamora sent his wife and children to the United States. Shortly before the incident, the newspaper had reported alleged cases of corruption within the government.
A home-made bomb was thrown on 4 July at the home of Luis Alberto Pérez Barillas, the correspondent of the daily Prensa Libre in Rabinal (in the department of Baja Verapaz) and presenter of the programme "La Voz de la Parroquía" on Radio San Pablo. No one was hurt. The next day, an anonymous letter was slipped under the door of Pérez’s sister, threatening to kill her children if she did not succeed in silencing her brother. Pérez left the region shortly afterwards. He had already received threats on 23 and 24 June. On 14 June, he had reported live on his radio station that stones had been thrown at Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt during an election campaign visit to Rabinal.
Several journalists were chased and attacked in the capital on 24 July by Ríos Montt supporters during violent demonstrations in support of his claim to be accepted as a presidential candidate. Juan Carlos Torres, a photographer with the daily elPeriódico, and Hector Estrada, a cameraman with the TV station Guatevisión, managed to escape after demonstrators doused them with petrol with the intention of burning them alive. The daily Prensa Libre reported that the motorcycle of Donald González, a journalist with a local radio station, was smashed up and that a photographer with the newspaper Siglo XXI was badly beaten by demonstrators who tried to rob his equipment. Edgar Valle of the TV news programme "Notisiete" and his cameraman were also attacked.
A car with darkened windows followed Carlos René Torres, the presenter of the programme "Diálogo" on a local cable TV station, and tried to run him down on 10 August. He was followed by another car a week later. Torres, who lives in the eastern town of Chiquimula, said he had also received anonymous phone calls advising him to change the content of his programme if he did not want to see a member of his family die. Guests on his programme are sometimes very critical of the local authorities or congressional representatives.
Juan Castillo and Estuardo Martínez of the daily Nuestro Diario, Marvin del Cid and Edwin García of the daily Prensa Libre and Francisco González of the daily Siglo XXI were attacked during a meeting by FRG presidential candidate Efraín Ríos Montt on 24 September in Ixcan. Egged on by a speech by FRG congressman Mario Riviera, the candidate’s supporters threw stones at the journalists covering the event and hit them with sticks. Castillo was injured and his material was destroyed. His colleagues took refuge behind police who were present.
Ten journalists threatened
Intruders broke into the Guatemala City home of Marielos Monzón, a contributor to the daily Prensa Libre, on 2 March 2003. They searched her two cars but only stole car radio parts although the keys were in one of the cars. Monzón said she received a total of 26 threatening phone calls before and after the incident. A week before, she had written an article about the atrocities suffered by the civilian population at the hands of the army during the 1960-96 civil war. She had also written a series of articles in the past two months about the disappearances of entire families during the civil war.
Alberto Sandoval, the manager of Jutiapa-based Radio Tamazulapa, received phone calls in May threatening him with death if he continued to criticise "our candidate" in the local municipal election. "I’ve been working for 40 years and I’ve noticed that every four years, with each election, the threats increase," Sandoval said. "But this year it is more noticeable than ever," he said, claiming not to know which candidate the anonymous caller was referring to.
A stranger went up to Edgar René Sáenz of Sololá-based Radio Xocomil Stereo on 16 May and told him to be careful. Then he received several threatening phone calls in June. In his programme "Somos hoy," he had criticised presumed irregularities in the running of the town hall and Sololá’s hospital. Sáenz is also the Sololá correspondent of the dailies Prensa Libre and Nuestro Diario and the radio network Emisoras Unidas.
Pablo Efraín Rax Chub of Radio Cobán, which is based in Cobán (Alta Verapaz), received threats on 30 May from unidentified callers who warned him to stop investigating drug trafficking in the region. Rax regularly criticises corruption and drug trafficking in his programme "La Noticia." He had already received many anonymous calls.
Carmen Judith Morán Cruz, the correspondent of the agency Cerigua in Salamá (in the department of Baja Verapaz), was threatened on 29 June by an anonymous caller, who said he would target her children if she did not resign. In another anonymous call on 3 July, she was told her parents "will pay" for her refusal to resign. Morán received police protection. Cerigua had written about the discovery in the area of mass graves dating back to the civil war. It had also covered a controversial visit to the region by Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt when he was a would-be presidential candidate. Morán’s bag, containing important work documents, was stolen in February.
Angel Martín Max, a correspondent of the daily Prensa Libre in the department of Alta Verapaz, found flowers in glass vase - associated with funerals in Guatemala - outside his door on 8 July, a day after he was hit by unidentified individuals who stole his material. He received several more threats in the following weeks.
Juan Luis Font, the editor of the daily elPeriódico, received a death threat on 11 July. He said the newspaper had received many threats in the past week, but the latest ones were targeted at him personally. He was warned that he was being watched and would soon be the victim of an attack. He received a further warning on 15 August that he was being watched and should be careful.
Haroldo Sánchez, the editor of the TV news programme "Guatevisión," reported on 1 August that he had received threats after he criticised the government and controversial presidential candidate Efraín Ríos Montt about the violence of 24 and 25 July (see above). He said he had been warned in phone calls and e-mail messages not to make any more comments about those incidents.
Juan Carlos Aquino, the presenter of the programme "Punto Informativo" on Radio Novedad, a radio station in the eastern town of Zacapa, received threats at the start of August after reporting on the air that the Zacapa residents who took part in the violent protests in the capital on 24-24 July were taken there in buses hired by the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG).
Edwin Perdomo, a reporter with Radio Porteña in Puerto Barrios (in the department of Izabal) and correspondent for the national daily Prensa Libre, was threatened on 18 August by an anonymous phone caller who said he knew where he lived and everything he did. He had already received calls at the end of July taking him to task for criticising the ruling FRG.
Harassment and obstruction
The car of Ileana Alamilla, the editor of the agency Cerigua, was stolen outside the agency’s office on 9 April 2003. A briefcase with many confidential documents was inside the car. Cerigua’s staff feared for their safety and suspected the theft was part of a broader strategy to intimidate journalists and human rights activists in Guatemala.
Journalists with both Guatemalan and foreign news media was denied access to Pavoncito prison in Fraijanes (south of Guatemala City) during a violent prison riot on 11 May. Domingo Tercero of the daily Al Día and José Vásquez of the Mexican TV channel Televisión Azteca succeeded in getting inside the next morning and got photos and footage of police shooting at prisoners and firing teargas grenades. The police quickly confiscated their material but interior minister Adolfo Reyes Calderón returned it to them with his apologies a few hours later.
Luis Eduardo de León of elPeriódico’s investigative team was the target of a break-in at his home 25 km west of the capital on 3 July. The intruders took a computer and computer diskettes containing information about corruption scandals implicated a congressional representative of the ruling FRG. They also took a tape recorder and documents belonging to his wife, a former employee of the human rights office of the Guatemala City archdiocese. The intruders, who broke in when no one was there, did not take any of the money or jewelry that was present.
Most staff were evacuated from the headquarters of the dailies Prensa Libre, elPeriódico and Nuestro Diario on 24 July because of fears they could be attacked by protesters. Only journalists stayed at their posts. Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt’s supporters were staging violent demonstrations to press demands that he be allowed to run in the 9 November presidential elections. A spokesperson for elPeriódico said about 300 of them gathered outside the newspaper, blaming the press for a court’s refusal to approve Ríos Montt’s candidature.
Congress issued a decree on 28 October ordering an obligatory nationwide suspension of activities on the day of the first round of the presidential election on 9 November and each day either side. The decree specified that the news media were also obliged to stop working for these three days. The stated aim was to ensure that voters would be free to go to polling stations. After heated protests, President Portillo vetoed the decree.