Relations between the media and President Alfonso Portillo’s Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) government were at a tense all-time low at the start of 2001. On 20 February, supporters of communications minister Luis Rabbé attacked the offices of the newspaper El Periódico after it criticised him for corruption. In the next few days, it and another daily, Prensa Libre, which had run similar articles, were lambasted by four TV stations owned by the minister’s brother-in-law, Mexican businessman Ángel González, who was a major financial backer of Portillo’s 1999 presidential campaign and has a virtual monopoly of Guatemalan TV. Salvador Bonini, head of the Guatemalan Journalists’ Association (APG), says TV stations have been "partly pro-government since 1986 but never as much as they are now." He deplores "a concerted effort to discredit" the opposition print media.
Minister Rabbé resigned in June and the situation calmed down a little. President Portillo even announced on 5 September the end of the government’s de facto TV monopoly by offering to sell off the licences of two state-controlled stations. This was promised before December, but by year-end it had still not happened.
Throughout the country, criticising politicians was a risky business for journalists. A dozen of them were threatened or beaten, mostly for denouncing corruption. This is probably why radio journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz was killed in early September after denouncing corruption. The local officials criticised were not touched despite investigations by the media and the country’s human rights ombudsman that suggested they were involved in the murder. The battle against impunity had mixed results. The conviction of the killer of photographer Roberto Martínez, less than a year after his death, was good news but the authorities unfortunately showed little interest in investigating the December 1999 murder of American journalist Larry Lee.
A journalist killed
Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz, presenter of the programme "Linea Directa" on Radio Amatique, in the eastern town of Puerto Barrios (Izabal province), was murdered by unidentified attackers in front of his home on 5 September 2001. The head of the radio, Javier Padilla, said Alegría Armendáriz had received several death threats. The day he died, he had told a colleague, José Antonio Godinez, that both of them ought to "watch out." The daily El Periódico said the journalist was about to make new revelations about corruption. The national human rights ombudsman, Julio Arango, said on 20 September that an investigation by his office showed that those who ordered the killing may have been town officials in Puerto Barrios and people at the local port authority, Portuaria Santo Tomás (Empornac), who the journalist had accused of corruption in his programme. The inquiry also said the actual killers may have been members of the security forces. It noted that the mayor of Puerto Barrios, Jorge Mario Chigua, had threatened on the air to kill him and that Edgar Orellana, public relations chief for both the town government and Empornac, had contacted the journalist several times to offer him money and a job to keep quiet. The day after the ombudsman announced the enquiry results, his representative in Puerto Barrios received death threats. The daily Prensa Libre said on 25 September that the corruption revelations by Alegría Armendáriz had been confirmed by the state auditing body, which said several hundred thousand dollars had been stolen by the town government and Empornac. In November, it was learned that the journalist’s wife had left the town and that tapes of his broadcasts had been taken from his home by the mayor. The day after Alegría Armendáriz was killed, Radio Amatique’s news presenter, Enrique Aceituno, announced his resignation, thus ending the station’s news broadcasts. He said he too had been threatened and pressured to stop the revelations about local corruption. The station resumed broadcasting news in early November but no longer criticised the authorities.
New information on journalists killed before 2001
A security guard, Gustavo García Rosales was jailed for 18 years and ordered to pay 50,000 quetzals (6,900 euros) damages on 19 February 2001 for murdering Roberto Martínez, a photographer with the daily Prensa Libre. García Rosales’ employer, Professional Security Corps, was also ordered to pay 150,000 quetzals (21,000 euros) damages to Martinez’ widow. The photographer was shot dead on 27 April 2000 while covering protests in Guatemala City against higher bus fares. Two security guards at a shopping centre opened fire on demonstrators who were looting and Martínez and two other people were killed and several, including two other journalists, were wounded. The second security guard, Luis Fernando Ramírez, was acquitted. The prosecution had asked for 120 years imprisonment for each man.
The government appointed a special examining magistrate on 15 August to look into the cases of seven US citizens who had died in Guatemala, including journalist Larry Lee, found stabbed in the neck and stomach in his apartment in Guatemala City on 28 December 1999. Since then, the investigation has been marked by irregularities. Results of the autopsy were only disclosed two months after the killing and traces of blood not belonging to Lee were discovered by his brother when he visited the apartment four months after his death. The killer stole Lee’s mobile phone but police did not investigate the numbers called from the phone since the murder. Lee was the Guatemala correspondent for Bridge News financial news agency. It was learned on 26 December that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would soon send three detectives to Guatemala to look into the case. The Guatemalan authorities had quickly concluded that Lee was killed in a personal dispute involving the local homosexual community, to which he belonged. His family said he may have been murdered because of an unpublished article he had written about human rights in Guatemala. By the end of the year, the enquiry had not advanced because DNA tests on blood found in the apartment cleared the only three suspects.
New information on a journalist who disappeared before 2001
The government signed an agreement with the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) on 2 March 2001 to reopen the enquiry into the disappearance in 1980 of journalist Irma Flaquer Azurdia, pay damages to her relatives and take steps to commemorate her. Six months later, a street in Guatemala City was named after her. On 13 December, the investigating judge said the files on the case had been burned and that it was not possible to contact those who made the first investigation soon after her disappearance. Flaquer Azurdia, who worked for the daily La Nación, disappeared in Guatemala City on 16 October 1980. In her column, called "What Others Keep Quiet About," she denounced government repression, the corruption of civil servants and soldiers and human rights violations. Her son Fernando was killed during her kidnapping. President Portillo admitted the authorities were to blame for not having made a proper enquiry into her disappearance. The IAPA includes the heads of more than 1,300 newspapers in the Americas and has a press freedom campaign.
Fourteen journalists attacked Sylvia Gereda, of the daily newspaper El Periódico, was attacked by a stranger on 27 March 2001, a few hours after being "warned" by a man who said he worked for the National Mortgage Bank (CHN) that the bank’s president, José Armando Llort, wanted to kill her and two of her colleagues, Luis Escobar and Enrique Castañeda. The man showed he knew details of the daily lives of two of the three journalists. The threats came after El Periódico published an investigation into Llort’s involvement in alleged embezzlement linked to government figures. Three days later, two armed men stopped the car of Martin Juaréz, also of El Periódico, and threatened to kill him. A few days after that, Llort was sacked.
Oswaldo Cardona Ramírez, a photographer with the daily Siglo XXI, was attacked on 17 June by two guards at the Zona 18 prison who said they had been ordered to ask him to hand over his film. When he refused, they seized his equipment and insulted and beat him. The journalist, who was covering the transfer of inmates between prisons, was held for more than an hour in the prison offices.
Several journalists were beaten by police in Guatemala City on 1 August while covering a demonstration against tax increases. They included Eddy Castillo, of the daily El Periódico, Mynor de Léon and Pavel Arellano, of Prensa Libre, Sandra Sebastian and Jorge Jiménez, of Siglo XXI, Marvin del Cid and Alex Maldonado, of the radio station Emisoras Unidas, Raul Morales, a reporter with Radio Sonora, and Wilfredo Hernández, of the daily Nuestro Diario. Police prevented them taking pictures and tried to disperse them. The same day, in Totonicapán, west of the capital, protesters destroyed the offices of the radio station Stereo Alegre, along with the equipment and car of two journalists from the TV station Canal 7, Rolando Santis and Carlos Guillén.
Six journalists threatened
Juan Carlos Aquino and Marvin Alfredo Herwin González, of the radio station Novedad, broadcasting from Zacapa (northeast of the capital), were reported on 2 February 2001 to have been getting anonymous telephone calls over several weeks threatening them with death if they did not stop criticising the authorities. In September 2000, Aquino was fired at as he left the radio station but escaped injury. The journalists also said they had several times been followed by unmarked vehicles after they left work.
Gustavo Soberanis, of the daily Siglo XXI, was threatened with a gun on 28 February by the country’s general comptroller, Marco Tulio Abadío, who he wanted to interview about a government financial transaction. The journalist said that when Abadío spotted him outside his office, he pulled a gun, threatening him and insulting the owners of Siglo XXI. In an interview with the paper on 2 March, Abadío admitted the incident but denied he had pulled a gun, saying it had been "a joke." He had refused three times to talk to Soberanis.
A stranger threatened to kill Ady Violeta Alborez de León, correspondent of Prensa Libre in Quetzaltenango (western Guatemala), on 21 March for having criticised the local governor, María Elisa López Ixtrabalán. For the next few days, the journalist, who also got more death threats by phone and e-mail, was followed. She had been investigating the suspected financial involvement of the governor in a company getting state subsidies.
Jorge Palmieri, a commentator for the daily El Periódico, was followed by a vehicle as he left his home on 11 April. The next day, he was again followed and then threatened by three strangers as he came out of a supermarket. One of them, carrying a club, insulted and threatened the journalist and demanded that he stop criticising the government and the president. "Journalists deserve a good beating if they continue doing that," he said. The chance arrival of a policeman cut short the incident.
A woman journalist of the Centro de Reportes Informativos sobre Guatemala (Cerigua) news agency received a telephone death threat on 23 July. The agency, which had been getting such threats for several weeks, feared its phones were being tapped. Its managing editor, Ileana Alamilla, had received a phone threat in July 2000, three weeks after someone had warned the agency’s journalists that "we know where you live and we’re going to kill you." Cerigua, founded in 1983, puts out news on human rights.
Pressure and obstruction
Communications minister Luis Rabbé criticised the print media on 12 January 2001, singling out the dailies Prensa Libre, Siglo XXI and El Periódico, which he called "biased and not very objective." He denounced the papers’ reporting of his alleged corruption as a campaign to destroy him. Guatemalan TV stations owned by Labbé’s brother-in-law, Mexican businessman Ángel González, waged a campaign in 2000 to discredit the three papers.
Nearly 50 supporters of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) stoned the offices of El Periódico on 20 February, symbolically burning copies of the newspaper and shouting insults against the paper’s boss, José Rubén Zamora. Over previous months, the paper had published articles about minister Rabbé’s alleged awarding of government contracts to non-existent companies. The author of the articles, Claudia Méndez Villaseñor, was threatened several times. The paper’s managing editor, Juan Luis Font, said one of the buses waiting to take the demonstrators away afterwards belonged to the communications ministry and at least two of the protestors were connected with the ministry. The paper called the police but they arrived after the demonstrators had left. Since it ran the articles, El Periódico has been regularly criticised by the TV stations controlled by Labbé’s brother-in-law, Ángel González.
President Portillo’s spokesman, Jorge Peréz, threatened print media on 19 September with legal action if they continued to publish "baseless reports." El Periódico had disclosed the previous month that 220,000 quetzals (30,500 euros) a year were skimmed from public funds to pay for the education of the president’s daughter. The paper also condemned the purchase by the president’s private secretary of a helicopter for Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán. The paper revealed that Alemán had also been given a bullet-proof Mercedes by Francisco Alvarado Macdonald, a friend of Portillo’s who had helped fund the FRG’s election campaigns. The day after Peréz made his threats, one of El Periódico’s editors was followed by two strangers in a stolen car. Soon afterwards, press reaction forced the government to disassociate itself from Peréz’ remarks.
On 18 December, it was learned that parliament was considering, at the president’s request, a bill concerning public access to information. One of the main obstacles is the army’s hesitation about it.
Vice-President Francisco Reyes enacted a law on 20 December requiring journalists’ to register with an official journalists’ institute. The bill, proposed by the ruling FRG party, was approved by parliament on 30 November. Only journalists with a diploma of five years of higher education can register with the institute and so legally work as journalists. The institute’s official aim will be to defend the profession and "fight amateurism and usurping of the status" of journalist. The new law obliges media chiefs to hire only such registered journalists and sets up a disciplinary tribunal to punish violations of the code of conduct approved by the institute’s general assembly. Journalists found to have "damaged the honour or reputation of the profession" or who have been "incompetent, inefficient, negligent or morally lacking as journalists" will also be punished. Penalties range from fines between 150 and 1,500 quetzals (21.7 to 217 euros) to temporary (between six months and two years) and permanent suspension from the institute. The new law also applies to other professions, where diplomas of five years higher education are required too.