Violence, Organized Crime Grip Guatemala

May 28, 2010

In 1998, the New York-based nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Guatemala had seen a “virtual halt of violence against journalists.”

They apparently spoke too soon.

In fact, 2009 was statistically the most violent year of the decade in Guatemala for rights activists and journalists, according to a report from the Guatemalan Human Rights Protection Unit (UDEFEGUA).

According to the report, the 353 acts of aggression against rights activists last year constitute a 37 percent increase over 2008. Journalists, meanwhile, suffered a 358 percent increase in aggressions last year.

“There is the emergence of a troubling new pattern of violence,” according to the report, titled “Violence, the Response to 10 Years of Struggle.”

The report says the 1996 Peace Accords inspired hope for a new Guatemala, but the situation of insecurity has worsened after initially improving.

“The country began the new millennium submerged in violence, with a situation of radicalized inequity and polarization,” the report reads. “The response to the struggle to consolidate peace, democracy, development and equitable relations has been threats, defamation, and, in some cases, death.”

While the climate for press freedom is still not as bad as it was during Guatemala’s brutal civil war, when the killing and threatening of journalists was common, there is concern that the situation is again worsening

after a moment of relative calm.

Since 2006, the CPJ reports the assassination of six journalists in killings whose motives have never been established.

Guatemala has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America, according to the U.S. State Department, with a 2009 average of 25 murders per week.

In such an environment, journalists are also falling victim to violent street crime. In April, journalist Luis Felipe Valenzuela, director of the Grupo Emisoras Unidas radio stations and a columnist with the daily SigloXXI, was shot by men apparently trying to rob his car.

Gonzalo Marroquín, board member of the Inter-American Press Association and current director of the Guatemalan daily La Prensa Libre, told The Tico Times there are “many signs that things could deteriorate,” especially given the government’s “low tolerance for criticism.”

Though the legal framework protecting freedom of the press in Guatemala is strong, Marroquín said that in rural areas media correspondents are increasingly vulnerable to threats by groups linked to organized crime and corrupt local authorities.

However, he added, “at this time, we can’t say there is a generalized situation of extreme concern.”

Others have raised concerns over the way the media operates in Guatemala, and the challenges to providing information in a country where 34 percent of the population is illiterate and 50 percent is non-native Spanish speakers.

Pressreference.com claims the government’s “virtual monopoly over television, coupled with its control over radio channels” could have dire consequences to Guatemala’s democracy. The group says “the full participation of the high-land-dwelling indigenous people of Guatemala will be necessary before there is any sort of democracy or true freedom of the press.”

The London-based freedom of expression group Article 19 is urging the Guatemalan government to implement the recently passed law governing the right to information.

The group also called for the establishment of a transparent process that respects pluralism and diversity in granting broadcasting licenses. The group noted that the two public TV channels, Congress 9 and Mayan Language 5, operate at a radical disadvantage compared to the four private stations owned by Angel González y González, a Mexican businessman.

The two public channels have recently been forbidden to sell advertising and thus can no longer afford to operate, the advocacy group lamented.

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