Guatemala: Free Press Under Attack

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Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei gives a press conference at the National Theatre, the day before his inauguration in Guatemala City, on Jan. 13, 2020.
© 2020 AP Photo/Moises Castillo

(New York) – The administration of President Alejandro Giammattei in Guatemala has targeted the media through bellicose rhetoric and false accusations throughout the president’s first year in office, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said today. Investigations into threats, attacks, and two killings of journalists during this period have made little progress.

The government’s verbal attacks against journalists became more frequent and prominent after Covid-19 began to spread in Guatemala in March 2020, and the authorities have restricted access to information about the pandemic. The administration has also failed to ensure that investigators and prosecutors have the necessary resources to conduct prompt and effective investigations into attacks against journalists. The government should urgently stop harassing independent journalists, ensure adequate funding to investigate attacks against them, and provide Guatemalans with access to timely and complete information about government efforts to address the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch and CPJ said.

“Since taking office a year ago, Giammattei’s government has demonstrated a hostile attitude toward the media, including by selectively limiting their access to important public health information,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “A free press and timely information accessible to all are essential to properly handling the pandemic.”

Human Rights Watch and CPJ have documented multiple cases since the pandemic began in which President Giammatteiand other authorities or members of the security forces threatened or harassed journalists. The organizations have also documented cases in which police and soldiers have conducted surveillance, intimidated, detained, robbed, and beaten journalists covering protests or investigating corruption. Moreover, women journalists have faced violence apparently because of their gender, usually through misogynistic threats and insults on social media.

Media reported that police attacked several journalists at the end of November 2020 when demonstrators took to the streets to protest the adoption of the 2021 budget and to press for Giammattei’s resignation. Journalists also faced physical and verbal attacks from violent protesters.

“The Guatemalan government needs to provide accurate and timely information necessary for the protection and promotion of rights, and ensure the right of journalists covering the pandemic and political developments to work safely,” said Natalie Southwick, CPJ Central and South America program coordinator. “Instead of harassing journalists or restricting their work, authorities should focus on investigating threats against the press, provide vital public health information, and allow journalists to do their job.”

Less than one year ago, CPJ published a report on media freedom in Guatemala, finding that the government had failed to investigate violence and threats against journalists or offer suitable protection to those under threat. In particular, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Journalists was slow to respond and ineffective in tackling impunity. The reason appears to be lack of capacity rather than lack of will. The office is understaffed, under-resourced, and overwhelmed, CPJ found.

Research by the groups since March 2020 suggests that challenges posed by the pandemic, including in-country travel restrictions, government agencies operating at reduced capacity, and delays and scheduling issues within the judicial system, have further compounded these difficulties.

Guatemalans have had limited access to information related to Covid-19 measures and cases, Human Rights Watch and CPJ also found. At the beginning of April, the government stopped producing daily reports about the pandemic, several journalists said, making it hard to keep track of the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases or to identify the most heavily affected parts of the country. Also, in April, the authorities expelled several journalists from WhatsApp chats with government authorities that had been their only way to obtain direct updates.

President Giammattei justified the government’s silence by accusing journalists of requesting private information about citizens with Covid-19. Yet journalists say they were only asking for data they needed to identify patterns, such as the number of cases in a region. The authorities could have answered such questions without compromising confidentiality or personal health data, Human Rights Watch and CPJ said.

Small recent steps by some authorities to share public information are insufficient to protect Guatemalans’ fundamental rights. While journalists report that access to information from the authorities, including through WhatsApp chats, has lately improved, communications are still delayed or incomplete. The authorities continue to restrict coverage of government events. News conferences are limited, and journalists – especially those considered government critics – are frequently denied the opportunity to ask questions. Although some restrictions may be necessary for public health reasons, they should not discriminate or retaliate against independent or critical media outlets.

Recommendations

To protect the rights to free expression, health, and a free press, Human Rights Watch and CPJ reiterate the recommendations included in the March 2020 CPJ report, and specifically urge the Guatemalan government to take the following measures:

Direct state agencies to make relevant information on Covid-19 readily available and accessible to the general public and reporters, and to respond to freedom of information requests within a reasonable time frame;
Ensure that elected officials and security forces do not harass or impose arbitrary restrictions on journalists performing their jobs, and investigate those implicated in these actions;
Collect reliable, comprehensive information and data on threats and violence against journalists and on media freedom violations, including information about the gender and other demographic characteristics of the victim, and make that information publicly available; and
Work with Congress to ensure adequate funding and resources for the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Journalists, with trained staff focusing exclusively on crimes against journalists, so they can conduct investigations into both physical and digital attacks against journalists. Ensure training includes attention to the gender, ethnicity, or other identity of the victim.

For additional information about threats and harassment, and lack of access to information on Covid-19, please see below.

During 2020, Human Rights Watch and CPJ reviewed media reports, statements by press freedom groups, official statements, and news releases from the Ombudsperson’s office. Human Rights Watch obtained firsthand accounts of attacks from four independent journalists and reviewed corroborating videos. For CPJ’s March 2020 report on media freedom in Guatemala, staff interviewed more than 20 journalists and press freedom advocates; ongoing communication with journalists who were sources for that report also contributed to the new findings.

Threats and Harassment

In April, more than 100 journalists, human rights defenders, and international organizations publicly challengedgovernment measures that harm journalism in Guatemala. They cited barriers to accessing information that should be public, as well as harassment, attacks, and intimidation against journalists.

The Ombudsperson’s office has received complaints from local journalists accusing National Civil Police agents of ordering journalists working on the street to show their professional IDs without reason, photographing or filming journalists, or ordering them to erase pictures or videos taken as part of their work. On November 30, the National Day for Journalists, the Ombudsperson’s Office expressed concern about attacks against the media and limited access to Covid-19-related information throughout the year.

As of December, the Association of Journalists of Guatemala (APG), a nongovernmental group, had registered more than 149 acts of aggression against or restrictions on journalists and media workers by private individuals, security forces, and public officials since Giammattei took office, compared with 85 for all of 2019.The complaints, some of which have been corroborated by the Ombudsperson’s office, include threats, theft, and abuse of journalists or community media workers and the killing of two journalists.

Some involved Indigenous journalists covering issues affecting their communities or women journalists who cover gender-based crimes. Several complaints allege that journalists have been denied information or access to news conferences for no reason other than them being critical of government policies, which is inconsistent with respect for media pluralism and independence.

Many of the complaints describe threats, intimidation, and harassment by officers of the Guatemalan Army and the National Civil Police. In addition to acts of aggression by police and soldiers, anonymous attacks on social media platforms and verbal and physical attacks by private parties have contributed to a hostile environment for journalists.

An unidentified gunman shot Bryan Guerra, of cable news channel TLCOM, on February 27, 2020. He died from those injuries five days later. The National Police and Chiquimula municipal Prosecutor’s Office did not respond promptly when Guerra reported that he had received threats on social media, the Association of Journalists of Guatemala reported. Guatemalan authorities have not identified a potential motive or announced any progress in the investigation of Guerra’s killing. He is the eighteenth Guatemalan journalist killed since 2000.

Junior Cordero, a reporter for Canal 12, denounced that on April 14 police had forced him to delete photos and videos he had taken of a man being arrested for violating the Covid-19 curfew in Malacatán, San Marcos. Both the Ombudsperson’s office and the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists are investigating the case.

The president has also made intimidating and hostile statements about journalists. On March 18, 2020, President Giammattei sprayed what was reported to be an anti-bacterial substance on journalists at the entrance of Congress and called it an “anti-journalist” spray. On March 21, while discussing a curfew imposed to combat the pandemic, the president said “I would like to impose a curfew on media outlets, but that’s not possible.”

In May, near the Presidential Palace in Guatemala City, police filmed, photographed, and searched the belongings of Sonny Figueroa, from the journalistic project VoxPopuli, and Marvin Del Cid, from the association for freedom of speech Article 35. The two journalists had been reporting on Giammattei’s circle of influence and his use of public property.

Del Cid reported that President Giammattei had said his reporting had “exceeded limits” at a news conference in January 2020, before the attacks. He also said that President Giammattei has publicly discredited the work of the two journalists by calling it “bar gossip” and referring to them as “the team” (el combo), alluding to the fact that they frequently work together.

Del Cid and Figueroa have reported on corruption allegations involving several government officials. They also published a report about the staff of the former Presidential Commission of the Center of Government, which was charged withcoordinating, supporting, and advising government ministries until December 31, 2020, and its director, Miguel Martínez, a businessman close to the president. Martínez announced that he had filed a criminal complaint for harassment, threats, and extortion by reporters from the online media outlet Plaza Pública, who had published an investigation about his links to the president on September 9.

Figueroa was in another incident with police in September, when officers detained him on charges of causing a scuffle on the street after his personal belongings were stolen. They arrested him and detained him for several hours. Two police officers involved in the incident have been arrested and are being investigated on charges of abuse of power. One of them had already searched and photographed Figueroa and Del Cid in May.

On December 7, Del Cid found a letter in the mailbox of his Guatemala City home, he told CPJ. The letter warned del Cid and Figueroa to refrain from investigating and publishing their work, “or else you’ll see.” The letter did not specifically cite any issues covered by either journalist.

On June 23, soldiers surrounded another journalist, Juan Carlos Botón, as he was photographing five soldiers who were not wearing masks in Quiché. The soldiers threatened Botón, the Ombudsperson reported, ordering him to hand over his cellphone. The Ombudsperson requested a criminal investigation, and the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists opened one.

On September 18, human rights organizations raised an alarm about social media threats and harassment against four women journalists who were reporting on gender-based violence. One of the journalists told Human Rights Watch she had filed at least three complaints at the Special Prosecutor’s office. The journalist said that one of the investigations was closed at the end of 2020 without reporting any findings; she did not have information about the status of her other complaints.

On September 22, in Quiché, police arrested Anastasia Mejía Tiriquiz, director of Xol Abaj Radio and Xol Abaj TV. Mejía, a member of the Maya K’iche’ Indigenous group, had covered an August 24 demonstration against the mayor of Joyabaj, reporting live on the Facebook page of Xol Abaj TV. The demonstration had ended in unrest, looting, and a fire in the municipal building.

Mejía’s reporting on August 24 covered community complaints, including corruption allegations against the mayor, and did not call for violence. But she was charged with sedition, aggravated attack, arson, and aggravated robbery and held in arbitrary pretrial detention for more than a month while her preliminary hearing was delayed several times. On October 28, a judge released her to house arrest after she paid a bond of 20,000 quetzales (approximately US$2,565), and she is awaiting a trial date on the charges of sedition and aggravated attack.

Between September 26 and 28, two women journalists received hostile messages and threats after covering activities highlighting International Safe Abortion Day. The writers of the messages referred to them as “abortion supporters,” warned them that they could be beaten, and wished they would be “raped.”

On November 21, during protests held in Guatemala City, a police officer beat journalist and photographer Carlos Sebastián on his head with a club while he photographed a protester’s detention, as shown in a video shared by the Ombudsperson. On November 28, at least five journalists were verbally and physically assaulted by hooded and violent protesters while covering the protest, media reported. One of them, Jovanna García from the feminist online outlet Ruda, was hit with an iron pole in her clavicle and shoulder by an unidentified person who called her an “infiltrated feminist” and insulted her. She was wearing her press badge and helmet.

Limited Access to Information, Including on Covid-19

Access to accurate, timely, and regularly updated information about Covid-19 and government measures to combat the spread of the virus are both inadequate, journalists said, despite several improvements after certain key officials were replaced in June.

When the pandemic began in March, the government delivered detailed daily updates on national television to the whole country. However, at the beginning of April, the government stopped producing those daily reports. That made it hard for journalists, as well as others, to keep a count of confirmed Covid-19 cases and to identify the most affected regions.

Officials have since reported deficiencies in government data. During her first news conference as health minister, on June 26, Dr. Amelia Flores confirmed that her team had detected inconsistencies in government data. She noted errors in the number of positive cases reported, relative to the total tested. On July 1, Edwin Asturias, who leads the Presidential Commission for Attention to the Covid-19 Emergency, submitted a report to Congress with preliminary findings. The report concluded that Covid-19 test results from the Health Management System (Sistema Gerencial en Salud, SIGSA) were different from those reported to the public, and that the reported numbers had been artificially modified to flatten the curve.

Although governmental recognition of these inaccuracies is an important step forward, the public still has inadequate access to information about the total number of cases and the most heavily affected areas. The government resumed publishing daily official data after Asturias’ report to Congress. But the current version of the data is only available online, and the presentation is so technical that it is difficult for anyone without advanced training in statistics or medicine, including journalists, to understand.

Although Congress approved a decree requiring the government to honor its10-day deadline for responding to public information requests during the pandemic, the Health Ministry and the president’s office have been giving tardy and incomplete responses, two journalists said. In response to journalists’ complaints, the Ombudsperson has been pressingthe minister of public health and social assistance to comply with the Access to Public Information Law, which establishes that deadline. Even if some delays may be necessary due to pandemic-related restrictions, they should not be arbitrary or become a pretext to prevent the sharing of public information.

Perhaps in response to the Ombudsperson’s exercise of oversight authority, Congress is seeking to replace the Ombudsperson’s office with a newly created National Office for Access to Public Information as the entity in charge of ensuring compliance with the Access to Public Information Law. The current Ombudsperson has faced repeated attempts by the government to undermine his ability to independently protect human rights by threatening him with dismissal and criminal prosecution.

Under the proposal, Congress would be able to remove the director of this new office by a simple majority. If this measure were implemented, the independence of those in charge of ensuring compliance would be at risk, Human Rights Watch and CPJ said. The government’s party controls Congress, and the person enforcing the law could easily be removed if they upset the government.

In light of the information vacuum, social distancing, confinement measures, and other restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19, the ability of journalists to report on rural conditions and cases is limited. That makes accurate, timely, and accessible government information about the pandemic even more important.

In addition to creating delays and limiting access to information generally, the government has barred specific journalists from receiving updates about the pandemic in what appears to be retaliation for independent reporting. The authorities have “removed journalists who question official practices from WhatsApp groups through which they distribute information,” said Alianza Regional, a network of nongovernmental groups that promotes access to information and freedom of expression in the region.

For example, the media outlet Nómada reported on April 12 that one of its journalists was expelled from a Health Ministry’s WhatsApp group. Also in April, two WhatsApp groups managed by then-presidential communications secretary, Carlos Sandoval, were restricted so that journalists could not ask questions or seek comment.

With news conferences canceled during the early days of the pandemic, WhatsApp groups had been a critical source of communication and official information. Francis Masek, the presidential communications secretary who took office in June, has shown more willingness to share information, but two journalists told Human Rights Watch that access to information is still limited and this is exacerbated by Masek’s official Twitter account being private, which limits the customary scrutiny essential to journalists’ monitoring of public officials.

News conferences and some WhatsApp groups have resumed under the new health minister and communications secretary, three journalists reported in October. Yet, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has limited the participation of certain journalists in the few news conferences that President Giammattei has held. At news conferences with other officials, journalists are barred from asking certain questions. These measures appear to have been imposed on particular journalists on the grounds of their independent work rather than of objective criteria, disproportionately affecting independent journalists who have criticized the government.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression said on April 18 that countries should “proactively provide truthful and reliable information on all aspects of public interest related to the pandemic.” They noted that officials had conducted stigmatizing campaigns against journalists in several countries, including Guatemala, and cited complaints by a group of journalists that the president and other officials had discredited them and restricted virtual channels for making questions about the government’s response to Covid-19.