Freedom of the Press
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Violations of press freedom have increased in recent years, particularly as the government has used courts to target journalists and media organizations. Despite continued threats and violence, however, local media continue to produce investigations into sensitive political topics, including corruption and misconduct by high-profile leaders.
- Press freedom violations substantially increased in the run-up to national and local elections, held in September and October.
- Two journalists were killed and one wounded in a single attack in March; investigations were ongoing at year’s end, with two police officers among those arrested on suspicion of involvement.
- A major corruption inquiry, aided by the work of local investigative journalists, led to the arrests and resignations of dozens of prominent officials during the year.
Legal Environment: 18 / 30
Freedom of expression is guaranteed under Article 35 of the constitution, but the Guatemalan press is subject to several legal restrictions. Among these is Article 41 of the Radio Communications Law, which prohibits transmissions “offensive to civic values and the national symbols” and programs “contrary to morals and good etiquette.” Libel and defamation remain part of the criminal code, with penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment, and business and political leaders continued to use these provisions in 2015. Repeating another person’s defamatory statement is also a crime, with similar penalties.
Bureaucrats, politicians, business elites, and others often use the courts in an effort to silence the press. In June, the Guatemalan Union, Indigenous, and Peasant Movement sued Miguel Ángel Zetina, editorial director of Prensa Libre, after the newspaper published about a complaint from the country’s human rights ombudsman against the organization. In September, the mayor of Sololá sued Alfonso Guárquez, a correspondent for the Center for Informative Reports on Guatemala (CERIGUA), for allegedly orchestrating a protest against the mayor’s candidacy for reelection; Guárquez denied the accusation, stating that he was covering the gathering.
In March, the government approved the creation of the Foundation Against Media Terrorism, which journalists interpreted as an attempt to increase control over the press. In April, the human rights ombudsman filed a complaint against the foundation with the Constitutional Court, stating that it is unconstitutional and violates freedom of expression. Although the case ended in favor of the foundation, the government dismantled it shortly thereafter.
Guatemala passed an access to information law in 2008, but obtaining information remains difficult in practice, especially for journalists covering corruption in regions outside the capital. Moreover, the law is weakened by a lack of sanctions for noncompliance. An annual compliance report for 2014, compiled by the office of the human right’s ombudsman, showed that only 62 percent of entities subject to the law had reported their annual response rates to information requests, as required by the law. Municipal development entities, mining extraction companies, and private organizations were most often noncompliant within the reporting period.
In 2015, community radio stations and international organizations continued to protest the General Telecommunications Law, which went into effect at the end of 2012. Advocates of community radio stations, which do not have legal recognition as broadcasters, argue that the legislation’s perfunctory license renewal process constrains community radio operators from gaining access to broadcast frequencies. There is no independent media regulation or licensing body, and the government controls the allocation of airwaves through public auctions that require bidders to meet technical and financial benchmarks. As a result, community radio stations are at a particular disadvantage and can face sudden closure. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ special rapporteur on freedom of expression, several community radio stations have been shut down and had their equipment seized in recent years.
Political Environment: 23 / 40 (↑1)
Media content is subject to pressure from the government and partisan interests, although an increasing number of outlets have exhibited independent editorial decision-making in recent years. Intimidation, threats, and violence encourage a culture of self-censorship, but several outlets nevertheless engage with sensitive political topics, including criticism of the government. Local journalists played a major role in a corruption investigation, jointly carried out by Guatemala’s Public Ministry and the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, that led to the resignations and arrests of dozens of public and business figures in 2015, including President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti Elías. Investigate reporting by elPeriódico, ContraPoder, and other publications lent significant evidence to the official investigation, and were a central part of several legal cases ongoing at year’s end.
Journalists often face intimidation, harassment, and violence both in the course of reporting and in retaliation for their work, and the elections of 2015 ushered in a period of heightened hostility. In November, CERIGUA released a report documenting 97 cases of aggression against journalists between January and October, up from 54 in all of 2014—an increase that the organization attributed to the electoral atmosphere. The government’s Prosecutorial Unit for Crimes Against Journalists confirmed that aggression against journalists had increased in 2015, noting that it had recorded 117 cases through November, as compared to a total of 74 in 2014. The CERIGUA report specified that police and political parties were among the primary aggressors, and cited border regions as particularly dangerous for media. CERIGUA noted cases of journalists being barred from voting stations, threatened for reporting on certain candidates, and attacked by party supporters. Among other cases, in September, participants in an election demonstration attacked Rolando Hernández, a correspondent for the Prensa Libre newspaper, while he was covering the event.
Media outlets sometimes face technical harassment. In August, the online news site Nómada reported that unknown culprits had used the site’s name and the name of its director, Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, to publish false information and run a smear campaign against Juan Luis Font, director of Diario Digital and ContraPoder. In a similar case, Prensa Libre reported in July that unknown entities had cloned its website, publishing false information about Font. Separately, in August, the signals of television stations Optimo 23 and ATV 24 were suspended by request of Enrique Maldonado de León, a congressional candidate for the incumbent Patriot Party (PP). The stations had previously received warnings to cease coverage of Maldonado’s opponents.
Journalists sometimes face spurious criminal cases with no explicit connection to their work. Public officials have leveled dozens of unfounded accusations of bribery, money laundering, trafficking, and extortion against Font, with some culminating in legal cases. In February, elPeriódico director Jose Rubén Zamora accused the government of orchestrating a campaign to repeatedly harass him in the courts.
In March, reporters Danilo López of Prensa Libre and Federico Salazar of Radio Nuevo Mundo were shot and killed in Mazatenango, and a third reporter, Marvin Túnchez, was wounded in the same attack. Although an inquiry was ongoing at year’s end, it was widely believed that the assailants’ target had been López, who covered government corruption and organized crime and had reported being threatened prior to the incident. Police arrested several individuals, including two police officers, in the case.
In 2013, the government established a prevention-oriented initiative, the Journalist Protection Program, by presidential request. The program has made little progress, and after the March 2015 shooting, media workers and advocates renewed calls for the government to take effective measures to ensure journalists’ safety. Those who commit crimes against media workers generally enjoy impunity. In an exceptional case in November, a court found a police officer guilty of abuse of authority in the arbitrary arrests of two reporters, Aroldo Marroquín of Prensa Libre and Esner Gómez Navarro of Nuestro Diario, in 2013; the officer received a three-year prison sentence.
Economic Environment: 17 / 30 (↑1)
Media ownership is closely tied with political and commercial interests, and the market overall is highly concentrated. Newspaper ownership is in the hands of business elites who maintain centrist or conservative editorial stances. All four major daily papers are privately owned. Broadcast television is concentrated in the hands of Ángel González, a politically connected Mexican entrepreneur who controls Guatemala’s main private television stations and favors conservative perspectives. In the radio market, there is one state-owned station and numerous private stations.
There are no legal mechanisms for enforcing ownership transparency, and many media companies conceal ownership structures through stock corporations and offshore entities. However, despite the lack of formal transparency, the public is generally aware of the interests behind major outlets.
Close to 27 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2015, and there were no reports of systemic restrictions on access. A number of online news sites, such as Plaza Pública and Nómada, attempt to offer independent, investigative information in an effort to challenge the country’s oligopoly.
Some media owners allege that the government allocates advertising unevenly in favor of friendly media and that it pressures private companies to pull advertising from critical outlets. ElPeriódico has not received state advertising since 2013, and its reporters have no access to the presidential palace. Bribery of journalists remains a concern.