Freedom of Expression

Press release R196/22

State of Guatemala must fully and effectively guarantee the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press

September 2, 2022

Washington D.C. - The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (SRFOE) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) pronounces itself on the guarantees for the exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Guatemala, expresses its concern about the reports received and calls on the State to fully and effectively guarantee these fundamental rights.

In recent months, the Office of the Special Rapporteur has received several reports that call for the attention of the Office with respect to freedom of expression in Guatemala, mainly related to attacks, intimidation and judicial harassment with alleged silencing purposes. In particular, the judicial prosecution of journalists coincides with the validity of IACHR reports on the weakening of judicial independence in Guatemala.  

According to the information received, José Rubén Zamora and Flora Silva - president and financial director of the media outlet El Periódico, respectively - have been subject to judicial persecution by the Public Prosecutor's Office (MP). State authorities have indicated that the criminal proceedings are not related to journalistic activities; and that the judicial proceedings surrounding their case are being conducted in strict compliance with the legal framework and human rights. In contrast, the information reported to this Office by numerous representatives of civil society indicates that the prosecution of José Rubén Zamora and Flora Silva could be related to their journalistic work. The Special Rapporteur’s Office has informed the State that it is following up on the process, and states that freedom of the press includes not only editorial activities but also those related to the sustainability of the media.

According to information received by this office, agents of the MP and the National Civil Police raided the homes of José Rubén Zamora, president of El Periódico, on July 29, and of Flora Silva, the financial director, on August 19. Both were reportedly arrested for allegedly committing crimes related to money laundering, among others. Also, on July 29, the offices of Aldea Global S.A., a commercial entity that - being in charge of the administrative management of the media outlet - shares its facilities with El Periódico, were raided.

Journalist José Rubén Zamora has been the beneficiary of precautionary measures from the IACHR since 2003, when the Commission understood that there was an imminent risk to his life and personal integrity due to a series of physical attacks and threats received in the exercise of his profession, and the context of violence against the press in Guatemala. In accordance with the powers granted by the precautionary measures mechanism, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteur’s Office have recently requested the State to conduct a working visit to verify Zamora's situation.

In addition to these facts, other cases have come to the attention of The SRFOE, related to complaints described as spurious and aimed at preventing the publication of investigations on matters of public and political relevance. Among other documented reports, in September 2021, a former Minister of Communications filed a complaint against journalist Juan Luis Font, director of the news program Con Criterio, for allegedly committing the crimes of illicit association and collusion. The reporter confirmed to this Office that he had left the country and denounced harassment and reprisals related to his work, which dissuade him from continuing to practice journalism from Guatemala. In this regard, the State indicated that this process is under legal reserve and that the investigating entity continues with the proceedings to elucidate whether or not the facts indicated have been committed. The authorities emphasized that the complaint mentioned here was filed by a third party and not by the Public Prosecutor's Office, and that the State is not pursuing the journalist for his informative work.

Likewise, in June of this year, the MP opened an investigation against journalists from Agencia Ocote after they interviewed a prosecutor in prison and produced a podcast about her case. Likewise, in 2021, the Rapporteur’s Office recorded in its annual report the activation of criminal actions against journalists Sonny Figueroa and Marvin del Cid by government officials and former government officials, allegedly after they published journalistic investigations involving them. The State pointed out that "there is no particular persecution for their journalistic work, nor is there professional harassment against both journalists". It added that "the criminal proceedings initiated against the agents of the National Civil Police for the aggressions denounced by both journalists is proof of the State's commitment to bring justice to all".

In this context, the Special Rapporteur’s Office has also been informed about the increase of coordinated inauthentic behaviors by anonymous accounts on social networks, which have been reported to disseminate State information of a reserved nature, or announce acts that are then executed by the State, for example, in relation to criminal trials. On this point, the State has informed that "such publications have at no time been aired by official accounts of the State of Guatemala, nor by its public officials, and therefore are not attributable to the State."

In the context described above, the Special Rapporteur’s Office is especially concerned about the cases of Anastasia Mejía and Michelle Mendoza, among other women journalists and communicators investigating issues related to corruption and impunity in Guatemala who have also reported on the deterioration of guarantees to their freedom of expression. The documented information indicates that threats through social networks, as well as the judicial processes faced by women journalists, are elements of gender-based violence that the State must consider.

Additionally, in its monitoring function, The SRFOE has documented the murder of journalist Orlando Villanueva in Puerto Barrios, department of Izabal, among other acts of violence, which include alleged aggressions and destruction of reporters' work equipment. Regarding the crime of the journalist, the State reaffirmed its commitment to carry out an investigation to clarify the facts and result in the corresponding sanctions. In this regard, it informed this Office that the Prosecutor's Office for Crimes against Journalists has carried out various actions and established a line of investigation. In addition, the Rapporteur’s Office has previously expressed its opinion on the violations of rights and the specific obstacles faced by community communicators in Guatemala. The Office has given particular follow-up to the cases of journalists Juan Bautista Xol, Baudilio Choc and Carlos Choc, who have publicly denounced judicial proceedings against them and police operations at their residences after they covered a series of demonstrations by the Mayan Q'eqchi' population in El Estor, Izabal, and the use of public force to disperse them in October 2021. Although this Office was informed that there are two criminal proceedings in force against journalist Carlos Choc, the State reported that there are no complaints filed against him, and that there are no State actions to impede his journalistic activity.

Finally, the Rapporteur’s Office also learned that the Congress of the Republic filed the Law on Prevention and Protection against Cybercrime, after a series of objections and observations of deputies were approved. The SRFOE welcomes the decision of the legislative body to dismiss this law, which contained provisions that, due to its vagueness, granted wide margins of discretion in its application and that risked being used to the detriment of the right to freedom of expression.

The information gathered by The SRFOE indicates that these facts are inserted in a context of intense judicialization of people who play a relevant role in public life and contribute to the democratic debate in Guatemala. In the State's opinion, the fact that there are several legal actions brought against communicators -in some cases initiated by individuals- is framed within the constitutionally guaranteed rights.

In the light of the above considerations, this Office recalls that the Inter-American human rights system provides reinforced protection for speeches of general interest and on the conduct of public officials, since they are indispensable in a pluralistic society for exercising public control over acts of government and administration. This implies, according to the Inter-American Court, that the punitive response of the State through criminal law is not conventionally appropriate in these cases. The Rapporteur’s Office has informed the State that it is following up on judicial proceedings against journalists for acts that may be related to their work and those that investigate violence against the press, including those referenced in this press release.

Likewise, the IACHR and the Inter-American Court have emphasized that an independent and critical press is a fundamental element for the validity of the other freedoms that make up the democratic system and the rule of law. On this point, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the IACHR establishes that the use of the power and resources of the State with the objective of pressuring and/or punishing journalists and media outlets based on their lines of reporting directly violates freedom of expression.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur calls on the State of Guatemala to redouble its efforts to fully and effectively guarantee the rights to freedom of expression and of the press. It is the duty of the State to generate the necessary conditions so that journalists can carry out their work in a free and safe environment; and so that society as a whole can be informed and receive the greatest possible amount and diversity of ideas and opinions. Likewise, in the light of these observations, the Rapporteur’s Office considers crucial that the State maximize its efforts to ensure that any restriction on the fundamental freedoms of journalists and communicators -whether involving the public authorities or third parties- complies with international standards of legality, necessity and proportionality.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the hemispheric defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression, considering its fundamental role in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.