San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Reading between the lines: Reporting under threat in Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY – It’s no secret that Guatemala is a dangerous country. Its precarious positioning on the main corridor for U.S.-bound drugs, plus its violent past marked by nearly four decades of civil war make 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 reporter.

Journalism in the Central American country 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 knowing that their words could cost them their lives. The desire to report reality often is offset by concerns for personal safety.

Guatemalan journalist Lucía Escobar was forced into hiding two years ago after she wrote an opinion piece in one of the national newspapers about a social-cleansing group operating in her home town of Panajachel, 150 kilometers west of 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 publicly accused local leaders of promoting social cleansing and being responsible for the disappearance and probable death of a local carpenter, Gilberto Senté Senté,” she said.

In the days following the publication of her column, Escobar received multiple threats via 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 on a television program owned by Higueros. They disputed my opinion piece, threatened to kill me and said that I was a drug trafficker,” Escobar told The Tico Times.

The Guatemalan journalist said that as a result of the threats, she feared for her family’s safety and considered moving to Costa Rica. However, thanks to help from international organizations she was able to relocate her family within Guatemala.

“It’s difficult to be a journalist here, 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,” she said.

Of the four individuals that Escobar named in her column, one of them was sentenced to 19 years in prison and another to 17 years.

Carlos Andrino, a Guatemalan reporter on a national television station, has compared being a journalist in Guatemala to being a journalist in Mexico – one of the most dangerous countries in the world to report from.

“I’ve been a victim of intimidation and have received numerous death threats, primarily from drug-trafficking groups and gang members,” Andrino said. “However, thank God, they haven’t amounted to anything more than threats.”

Andrino said he doesn’t believe 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 said.

In addition to physical threats directed at reporters, there are also monetary ones delivered directly to media organizations by powerful businesses who threaten to withhold advertisement if newspapers print something they do not agree with.

During his 2011 election campaign, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina assured his government would allow journalists the freedom to express themselves through their writing, and earlier this year his administration launched a security program aimed at protecting journalists against organized crime. However, so far in 2013 four reporters have been killed in Guatemala, according to statistics from the Center for Informative Reports on Guatemala.

Until the media is able to express itself without fear of repercussions, Guatemalans will be forced to read between the lines of their daily newspapers to discover what is going on in their country.

Lucía Escobar Guatemala

Guatemalan journalist Lucía Escobar was forced into hiding two years ago after she wrote an opinion piece in one of the national newspapers about a social-cleansing group operating in her home town of Panajachel. Courtesy of Lucía Escobar

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