Reading between the lines: journalism in Guatemala
Guatemala’s precarious positioning on the main corridor for US-bound drugs makes it one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman and one of the most dangerous places in the Americas to be a journalist.
Efforts to improve security have only led to greater militarization, abuse within the police force and an erosion of the law. Many suggest that the war on drugs is becoming a war on women; rape, torture and killing are as common now amongst females as they were during the country’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.
Journalism here is a game of self-censorship: you say as much as you can about what is happening, and as little as you can about who is doing it. Those who speak out against impunity do so in the knowledge that their words could cost them their life. So the desire to report reality is offset by concerns for personal safety.
Guatemalan journalist Lucia Escobar was forced into hiding last October after she wrote an opinion piece in a national newspaper about a social cleansing group operating in her home town of Panajachel, 150 kilometres from Guatemala City.
‘I denounced the activities of a masked group of vigilantes who were terrorizing the local population at night. It wasn’t the first time I had written about their crimes, but this time I named names. I publically accused local leaders of promoting social cleansing and being responsible for the disappearance and probable death of a local carpenter, Gilberto Senté Senté,’ she explains.
In the days following the publication of her column, Escobar received multiple threats through anonymous emails and was accused of drug trafficking by some of the individuals she had mentioned in her piece.
‘The former mayor of Panajachel, Gerardo Higueros, accompanied a local police chief and members of the Municipality’s Security Council onto a television programme, owned by Higueros. They disputed my opinion piece, threatened to kill me and said that I was a drug trafficker,’ says Escobar.
The Guatemalan journalist admits that as a result of the threats she feared for her family’s safety and considered moving to Costa Rica. However, thanks to the help of international organizations such as The Rory Peck Trust, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Peruvian foundation IPYS, she was able to relocate her family within Guatemala: ‘It’s difficult to be a journalist in Guatemala but it’s the only thing I can do for my country. It’s my passion, it’s my life and I believe in the role of the media in strengthening democracy.’
Of the four individuals that Escobar named in her column, two of them have been sentenced to 19 years and 17 years in prison.
A couple of days after moving to Guatemala, I read an article about a journalist in neighbouring Mexico. He was kidnapped, decapitated and left with a sign attached to his corpse stating that he shouldn’t have asked so many questions.
Carlos Andrino, a Guatemalan reporter on a national television channel, has compared being a journalist in Guatemala to being a journalist in Mexico – one of the most dangerous countries in the world to report on.
‘I’ve been a victim of intimidation and have received numerous death threats, primarily from drug-trafficking groups and gang members. However, thank God, they haven’t amounted to anything more than threats.
‘I don’t think that the situation for journalists in Guatemala is improving. On the contrary, I think that each day we take greater risks and are starting to live under the same conditions as Mexican journalists,’ he says.
As well as physical threats directed at reporters, there are also monetary ones delivered directly to media organizations by powerful businesses who threaten to withhold advertisements if newspapers print something they do not like.
Guatemala’s recently elected president, Otto Perez Molina, assures that his government will allow journalists the freedom to express themselves through their writing; however, many are currently too afraid to do so. Until this changes, Guatemalans will be forced to read between the lines of their daily newspapers if they are to have any hope of learning the truth about what is really going on in their country.