A journalist was killed in September 2006, a month after another narrowly escaping an attempt to kill him. Despite the decriminalisation of press offences, physical attacks on journalists are still frequent and narrow ownership of the media helps the authorities to exert pressure on it.
Guatemala in 2006 followed Honduras, Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay in decriminalising press offences. The constitutional court accepted on 1 February the argument of national journalism institute president Mario Fuentes Destarac that articles 411 and 412 of the 2006 criminal code, providing for between one and three years imprisonment for offending the head of a state body and between six months and two years for defaming a public body or official, were unconstitutional. The court said they contradicted article 35 of the national constitution, which stipulates that freedom of expression must not be curbed by laws or regulations.
But this positive ruling did not stop dozens of physical attacks and threats against the media and journalists, often committed by police, soldiers, private security agents and former paramilitaries from the 1960-86 civil war. One journalist was killed and another escaped assassination.
Eduardo Maas Bol, a correspondent for Radio Punto, was shot dead on 9 September on his way home in the town of Cobán and his body with five bullets in it found in his car parked near the local police station. A definite link between his death and his work has not been found, but Ángel Martín Tax, correspondent for Radio Sonora, later got a phone call warning that he was “next on the list” after Maas Bol.
Two motorcycle gunmen tried to kill reporter Vinicio Aguilar Mancilla, of the independent station Radio 10, on 23 August, but only broke his jaw; The station’s director and founder, Oscar Rodolfo Castañeda, got a phone call the day before warning him to stop investigating tax evasion and as a result he fled the country. Castañeda has long been involved in exposing corrupt politicians and human rights violations and is constantly been hounded by courts for “illegal broadcasting,” a campaign he says is to stop his investigations and keep the media in the hands of the country’s oligarchy.
As elsewhere, the legality of Guatemala’s community radio stations is an urgent issue, with only 250 of them legally broadcasting and 2,500 doing so without a licence. A proposed law to regulate them has not yet been approved by parliament.
The consequences of the civil war still persist, and former dictator (1982-83) Gen. Efraín Montt, who was defeated at the last presidential election, was cleared by a court on 30 January of responsibility for a violent demonstration of his supporters three years earlier in which a journalist was killed. Impunity for crimes against journalists thus continues.