Reporters Without Borders today deplored a Guatemalan court’s decision on 30 January to dismiss all charges against former dictator Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt in connection with the violent rioting by his supporters in July 2003 in which Hector Ramírez, a reporter with the TV station Canal 7, lost his life.
Supporters of Ríos Montt, who headed a military government in 1982-83, rampaged through the streets of the capital on 24 July 2003 in support for his bid to take part in presidential elections, attacking journalists who went to cover their demonstration.
Aged 61, Ramírez suffered a fatal heart attack while being chased by members of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), the party Ríos Montt founded. Several journalists were beaten, stabbed, or sprayed with petrol. Some news media had to be evacuated. National police chief Raúl Manchame was fired four days later.
Manchame pleaded innocent in court on 30 January, while 15 presumed FRG members pleaded guilty to taking part in the street violence. They face sentences of up to a year in prison or fines of 1,455 euros.
29.07.03 - Police chief fired as a result of 24 July violence
Interior minister Adolfo Reyes yesterday announced the dismissal of national police chief Raul Manchame July because of violent demonstrations on 24 July in which several journalists were attacked and one died of a heart attack.
The interior minister said there will an enquiry into the police chief’s role in the disturbances. The police chief said on 26 July that the police had beaten a retreat because the demonstrators were threatening to attack major hotels and embassies.
State prosecutor Carlos de León meanwhile said the interior minister should also be dismissed if he is found to share responsibility. The supreme court has appointed judge Alfredo Morales to supervise the enquiry into the incidents and the possible involvement of ruling party members in congress.
Gonzalo Marroquín, the managing editor of the daily Prensa Libre, yesterday announced that his newspaper is providing its journalists with flack jackets. "We have bought ten flack jackets that will be used in emergencies," he said.
25.07.03 - One journalist dead, five others attacked and newspaper offices evacuated because of violent demonstrations by Ríos Montt supporters
Reporters Without Borders today voiced deep shock at the death of Hector Ramírez of Radio Sonora and the violence against other journalists yesterday by supporters of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who blame the press for a court decision that is threatening his bid to be presidential candidate for the ruling Guatemala Republican Front (FRG) in the next elections.
"The violent attacks by demonstrators against the press are extremely serious and must not remain unpunished," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to President Alfonso Portillo. "It is your duty to ensure that those responsible are identified and punished, and we caution you against any laxity because the assailants came from within the ranks of your own party," he continued.
The letter stressed that Reporters Without Borders was very concerned by yesterday’s violence because it followed threats and attacks against some 10 journalists in recent weeks. "Halting this spiral of violent is a matter of great urgency," Ménard concluded.
Ramírez, 61, died of a heart attack as he was being chased by FRG supporters through the streets of Guatemala City. He worked for the news programme "Notisiete" on the Canal 7 television station as well as for Radio Sonora.
Several other journalists came under attack when they tried to approach buildings that had been sealed off by Ríos Montt supporters. Some of the demonstrators wore masks and carried guns or knives. They insulted the journalists, chased them and threatened to beat them.
Those attacked included Juan Carlos Torres, a photographer with the daily elPeriódico, and Hector Estrada, a cameraman with the TV station Guatevisión, who managed to escape after demonstrators doused them with petrol in order to burn them alive. Torres, whose camera equipment was destroyed, was hospitalised.
The daily Prensa Libre reported that Donald González, a journalist with a local radio station, saw his motorcycle being smashed up and that a photographer with the newspaper Siglo XXI was badly beaten by demonstrators who tried to rob his equipment.
The organisation Periodistas Frente a la Corrupción (Journalists against Corruption) for its part reported that Edgar Valle, another journalist with "Notisiete," and his cameraman were attacked by Ríos Montt supporters outside the supreme court.
Agence France-Presse reported that later in the day that the offices of three daily newspapers, Prensa Libre, elPeriódico and Nuestro Diario, had to be partially evacuated after calls were received warning they could be the target of attacks. Only the journalists stayed behind. A member of the elPeriódico said that 300 demonstrators gathered outside the newspaper.
Ríos Montt’s supporters want him to be able to stand in the 9 November presidential elections and appear to hold the press responsible for a decision by the supreme court on 20 July that has temporarily suspended his candidacy. Bussed into the centre of the city at the start of the day, they blocked access for several hours to various public institutions and a private office block with several hundred persons inside. Ríos Montt, who is currently the congressional president, has denied that the FRG was behind the protest.
The supreme court’s decision was taken in response to an appeal by two opposition parties against the constitutional court’s decision to approve Ríos Montt’s candidacy. The opposition maintains that since Ríos Montt took power briefly in a 1982 military coup, his candidacy violates a provision of the 1985 constitution barring anyone who overthrew a constitutional government from being president. The armed forces committed extensive human rights violations during the 18 months that Ríos Montt’s de facto government lasted.