It’s no secret that Guatemala is a dangerous country. Its precarious positioning on the main corridor for U.S.-bound drugs makes it one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman and one of the most deadly countries in the Americas for reporters.
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 with the knowledge that their words could cost them their life. So the desire to report reality is understandably offset by concerns for personal safety.
Three years ago, Guatemalan journalist Lucía Escobar was forced into hiding after she wrote an opinion piece in a national newspaper about a social cleansing group operating in her home town of Panajachel, 150 km 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,” she says. “I publicly accused local leaders of promoting social cleansing and being responsible for the disappearance and probable death of a local carpenter.”
In the days following the publication of her column, Escobar received multiple threats via anonymous emails and was even 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 in an appearance on a television program, 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, she was able to relocate her family within Guatemala instead.
“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.”
Of the four individuals that Escobar named in her column, one was sentenced to 19 years in prison and another to 17 years.
Carlos Andrino, a Guatemalan reporter on a national television channel, has compared being a journalist in Guatemala to being a journalist in Mexico, which the nonprofit organization Reporters Without Borders describes as one of the most dangerous countries from which to report.
“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.
In addition to the physical threats directed at reporters, there are also monetary ones delivered directly to media organizations by the government or businesses who threaten to withhold advertisements if the press publishes or runs a story that it doesn’t like.
During his election campaign, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina assured that his government would allow journalists the freedom to express themselves through their writing, and last year his administration agreed to create a security program aimed at protecting journalists against organized crime. But so far this year, the Public Ministry has received 71 reports of attacks against journalists — a number of which reportedly come from the government itself — and the security program has yet to be launched.
Many analysts say that until the media is able to express itself without fear of deadly repercussions, Guatemalans will be forced to continue reading between the lines of their daily newspapers to find out what is going on in their country.