Being a journalist or social or community communicator in Guatemala is a high risk activity. According to the Reporters Without Borders 2020 report on freedom of the press, Guatemala is now in the "red zone", ranked 116 out of 180 countries worldwide. The same report states that: “The new president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, who took office in January 2020, inherited a disastrous situation in terms of freedom of the press. This is the legacy of Jimmy Morales (2016-2019), who during his tenure did not stop attacking journalists critical of his administration and his government, often accusing them of spreading false news and deceiving the population. This generated a climate of great tension and self-censorship ”.
Unfortunately, this trend does not appear to have changed under the new government. Data from the Office of the Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists of the Public Prosecutor's Office (MP), created in November 2019, indicates that from January to June 2020 there have been 43 reports of attacks against journalists in the country. Despite various attempts over several years, Guatemala has still failed to implement a protection plan for journalists.
Journalists, are they human rights defenders?
According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) “journalists fulfill the broad mandate of gathering information and disseminating it publicly through the press, radio or television. They are not considered human rights defenders in the performance of these duties. However, many journalists act as such when, for example, they report on abuses and incidents that they have witnessed.” It is because of this last aspect of their work that, in Guatemala, as in other parts of the world, journalists and communicators face constant risks and threats.
Furthermore, in Guatemala, as in many parts of Latin America, the people who inform and participate in the dissemination of information, carry out this work across diverse contexts, and so face very different risks. According to Norma Sancir, a Maya Kaqchikel woman, who worked as a human rights defender with the Ch'orti people in the Chiquimula department, “in Guatemala, we could say that there are three groups of journalists and communicators. In the first place, journalists who have an academic degree, the vast majority of whom work for the mass and corporate media. By the nature of their work, this group of journalists have faced threats mostly when they have revealed cases of corruption at the national level. This was the case recently of the journalist Marvin del Cid.
Secondly, there are “another group of journalists who were trained in the street, who did not necessarily study, but rather journalism is their vocation, they like it. They work in their community, their municipality and then one day they dared to become broadcasters, reporter or journalists and then they have been working in this for many years ”.
Finally, Norma Sancir explains that 10 years ago another group of journalists and community and/or social communicators or community radio broadcasters emerged. This group appeared as a result of the lack of media outlets who were reporting on speicific issues at the community, departmental and national levels, but also due to the need to broadcast information in the local languages.. Initially, the people who were carrying out this work were neither academics nor journalists, rather it came from the need to inform and be informed about events in their locality: in the community, the municipality, or the department. Indeed, according to Norma Sancir: "the major media have an" agenda" and within the agenda, according to studies carried out by the Civitas Center, when it comes to indigenous peoples, almost always, the stories that appear in the national media relate to incidents when there has been a lynching in a community, when there has been a fire, a protest, or a demonstration. There is a strong folklorization, while the needs that exist in the territories are almost never discussed."
Imelda Tax Monrroy, a pre-primary and secondary teacher, a television host from the group Jóvenes Dejando Huella (Young People Leave a Mark) and Correspondent with the Community Press in Totonicapán, explains how often community journalism is a means of communicating with credibility, that is free of profit or self-interest. It can be exercised by members of the community, be they young people, teachers, broadcasters or radio announcers in a totally benevolent way. Furthermmore, this work has been very necessary throughout the pandemic, it was they who disseminated information about COVID-19 in their own language, since the information issued by the government was disseminated only in Spanish.
Norma Sancir says that not forming part of a large corporate media outlet is a source of vulnerability, particularly, vis-à-vis state authorities: “the police don't consider us journalists. Civitas has worked on his issue a lot by training people in these spaces, such as police and judges on the issue of respect for journalists in the use of their freedom of expression. So far we are not very recognized or legitimized in the country." She also explains how journalists and community communicators face threats, particularly when they fulfill another role as defenders of human rights, indigenous peoples, and especially in the area of defending the territory against monocultures, hydroelectric and mining projects. At the national level, there are many emblematic cases of the criminalization of journalists and social communicators, such as Carlos Ernesto Choc, Francisco Lucas Pedro (Palas Luin) or Norma Sancir herself. She was illegally detained and subsequently jailed for three days in 2014 while covering a peaceful protest near the Jupilingo Bridge in Ch'orti 'territory. Imelda Tax Monrroy emphasizes that these risks are compounded by cross-cutting issues such as discrimination and racism.
The impact of the Pandmic and State of Calamity
Situations such as the State of Calamity, which has been in force in Guatemala since March 5, 2020 and the pandemic, hinder the work of many of the journalists and communicators, in a moment when their work is more important than ever. There are already many voices who have spoken out about the government's lack of transparency when it comes to providing information, particularly about the scope of the pandemic, and their failure to engage in direct communication with the press. In April 2020, Nómada denounced that one of its journalists was expelled from the of the Ministry of Health's WhatsApp group where information about the coronavirus was shared, and that two other government WhatsApp groups were restricted so that the press could not ask questions or make comments.
On the other hand, since the beginning of the crisis caused by Covid-19, cases of intimidation, threats and attempts to criminalize journalists and communicators have multiplied. The list is getting long: Manuel Toro, Yobany Francisco Lucas, Jovanna Mariam Garcia, Baudilio Choc Mac, are people who have been attacked and have been registered as such. Frontline Defenders issued a statement at the end of June, expressing their concern about the increase in attacks amid a series of killings, smear campaigns and death threats.
The pandemic and the restrictions established by the State of Calamity have made work in the territories particularly difficult. Transport and access to the territories became more difficult, even impossible in some cases, while the need to cover abuses and attacks on fundamental rights, particularly in relation to the defense of the territory, have increased. Indeed, according to UDEFEGUA's registration of cases, the following were documented: “405 attacks against human rights defenders from January to May 2020. The number of attacks during the first five months of 2020 is equivalent to 80% of the 494 documented cases in 2019.
The Situation of Women Journalists
On the other hand, it is necessary to highlight the specific situations of women journalists and communicators, who, due to structural sexism and gender based violence, face additional threats. Brenda Guillén, coordination assistant from UDEFEGUA, highlights how the women human rights defenders who receive the most attacks are those who carry out journalistic or social communication work. She also distinguishes between women who exercise this right in urban and rural areas: “In rural areas, women are reporting what is happening in these territories and that is why they are subject to threats, defamation, kidnapping and, above all, sexual violence against them. People close to them also receive threats.”
In this sense, Imelda Tax Monrroy reports how, due to the risks they run as women, for example, they avoid joining certain high-risk protests, which in turn limits their work. She also explains how there are cases of intimidation and discrimination: "because we are women they consider us to be of the weaker sex and that we cannot do this kind of work." Regarding the specific risks caused by the pandemic and the State of Calamity, she explains that with the curfew, the streets are desolate and making notes is more dangerous for them.
Contrasting with the reality in the territories, Brenda Guillen explains how in urban areas: "women journalists or social communicators are receiving attacks through social networks, including defamation and hate speech." This was the case of Jovanna Mariám García who works as a journalist for the feminist magazine Ruda + Territorio. In June 2020, García was accused of defamation for having denounced that Hugo Cabreras Navas, a university professor and Vice Minister of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food, released a video with sexual content involving a student.
And the damage has not been repaired
Criminalized communicators almost always spend time in preventive detention until their first hearing, and furthermore, there is no progress on the investigations into their own complaints of assaults. Norma Sancir's complaint against the four PNC officers who detained her while she was working as a journalist was brought to court five years later. After the first statement by the police before the Criminal, Drug Trafficking and Environmental Crimes Court of First Instance of Chiquimula, the judge in charge declared the case had a lack of merit for claiming that Norma Sancir's statements were insufficient evidence to charge the PNC officers with a crime against the agents.