IAPA Midyear Meeting 2018

Medellín, Colombia

This period has seen an increasing polarization between supporters and opponents of the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) in Guatemala and its commissioner, Iván Velásquez.

Attacks on the independent news media, originating in the upper reaches of government, have intensified. The government has sought support in political figures such as the mayor of Guatemala City and former president Álvaro Arzú, a declared enemy of press freedom. The mayor has survived two pretrial motions (which would have stripped his immunity and allowed a police investigation to move forward) brought by the CICIG (on accusations of embezzlement and illegal campaign financing) and a former municipal employee (for incitement of violence). In both cases, the evidence against him was deemed sufficient to open an investigation but was rebuffed by the courts.

The independent media have come under increasing financial pressure. Advertisers are coerced to withhold their business from outlets that take a stand against corruption. Some advertisers believe that denouncing corruption creates an environment that is unfriendly to business.

There are legal mechanisms to curtail freedom of expression in Guatemala through the Law on Elections and Political Parties, which is already in effect, and a proposed law (Bill 5239) against terrorism, currently pending in Congress.

Progress has been made in the investigations and prosecutions related to the killing of Danilo López, a reporter for Prensa Libre, and Marvin Túnchez, a reporter for a radio station in Mazatenango. Julio Juárez, a legislator for the ruling party, is set to face trial along with others who were allegedly involved, including the person who carried out the killing. Meanwhile, the U.S. government invoked sanctions against Juárez under the Global Magnitsky Act on December 21, 2017.

Sadly, two journalists were killed in this period: Laurent Ángel Castillo, 28, a contributor to Nuestro Diario; and Luis Alfredo de León Miranda, a former contributor to the Coaltepec radio station. The two were killed on February 1 in Santo Domingo Suchitepéquez. The motive for the killing is unknown.

After President Jimmy Morales tried to expel Velásquez, the CICIG commissioner, from the country in August 2017—a move blocked by the Constitutional Court—Morales asked the United Nations to recall the commissioner.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visited a number of Guatemalan officials, including President Morales, and stated her support for the CICIG and Commissioner Velásquez. However, she suggested that the cases handled by the CICIG and the public prosecutor's office should not be treated as a media spectacle.

Head prosecutor Thelma Aldana said that press conferences would continue to be held to report on significant cases and those who are involved.

This has spurred systematic attacks against media outlets and journalists. These attacks are waged on social media, through government "netcenters" that have hundreds of fake accounts, and through "influencers" hired to carry out direct attacks on journalists. On November 6, 2017, several journalists, standing alongside the representative for Guatemala of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement asking prosecutors to investigate these attacks.

Both President Morales and Mayor Arzú have been implicated by the CICIG and prosecutors in acts of corruption. The pretrial motions have not been successful, but others are in the works.

In a joint ceremony before the Army Reserves, Mayor Arzú said, "Guatemala is a country that is today defamed ... but it is defamed by us, by our news media," and "that is why we will have to go over the heads of the negative media and roll up our sleeves; we will have enough passion, resolve, and strength to rebuild our homeland and bring it back to life."

At a public event on January 10, President Morales singled out Mario Antonio Sandova, president of the Guatevisión network and vice president of Prensa Libre, alluding to him with the statement, "Bad news sells itself and good news has to be paid for." Similar attacks have been directed toward other media outlets and journalists by the authorities and the "netcenters."

Currently pending in Congress is Bill 5239, the "Law Against Terrorist Acts," which calls for 10 to 20 years in prison for those who "use media outlets, information technology, electronics, or similar means to create fear, cause alarm, or intimidate or coerce the government for economic, political, religious, ideological, military, or other purposes."

This bill has not yet been brought before the full legislative body, but it has been approved by the Committee on Governmental Affairs.

The new Law on Elections and Political Parties requires campaign ads to be paid for with government resources through the Supreme Electoral Tribunal at 20% of the going rate for commercial advertising, with no limitations allowed on publication or transmission.

This includes all traditional and alternative media outlets. Any outlet that wishes to carry political advertising must register with the electoral tribunal. The law also bans the publication of poll results within 15 days of an election, which violates the people's right to be informed. Due to the way the law is written, there is a risk that news, opinion pieces, and opinions aired on radio and television may be considered campaign advertising, which could result in legal action against media outlets and their managers, executives, and owners.