Monday, August 28, 2006

Guatemala - Assault on Press Freedom

Three years ago this fall, in Guatemala City, I sat across a table from Jose Ruben Zamora, editor of Guatemala's El Periodico newspaper, and listened to his struggle trying to function as an independent, investigative journalist in that Central American country. It was a tense time in Guatemala, as the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG) party of then-President Alfonso Portillo looked set to win another presidential term, but this time for their candidate Efraín Ríos Montt, a former military dictator. During a single four-month period during Rios Montt's first turn at the helm of Guatemala's ship of state (March-July 1982), Amnesty International estimated over 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers were killed and 100,000 rural villagers were forced to flee their homes. The Portillo administration itself had been marked by high degrees of corruption and violence.

On 24 June 2003, Zamora, who had made his newspaper a forum for detailing the links between government figures and the country's criminal underworld, was held captive along with his family and domestic servants, as a dozen armed individuals brandishing the identification of a government ministry and the national police stormed his home, stripped him, and beat his two teenage sons. Zamora, who was awarded the 1995 International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists, sent his family into exile in the United States and continued on in Guatemala. Independent investigators later identified some of the assailants as former government employees with links to the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), a controversial military unit, since disbanded, that was responsible for presidential security and was linked to a series of high-profile assassinations over the years, including the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, the 1994 killing of Constitutional Court President Eduardo Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon and the 1998 beating death of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi.

Mercifully, Rios Montt was defeated in the presidential contest by former Guatemala City mayor Óscar Berger, but being a journalist in Guatemala does not appear to have become any easier. Last week, radio journalist Vinicio Aguilar, whose call-in talk show often addresses topics such as organized crime, corruption and tax evasion by big businesses, was shot in the face while jogging near his home in the capital and left for dead. Miraculously, he survived. Radio 10, where Aguilar worked, had previously received an on-air death threat against its owner for their coverage.

It takes a lot of courage to be a journalist in a place like Guatemala, where the struggles are hard, the odds of change long and threat of violence very real and ever-present. If you would like to support a free press in Guatemala, check out the website for the Commite to Protect Journalists. To get involved and support the struggle for human rights there, learn more about the Centro para Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH), a Guatemalan human rights organization dedicated to defending the fundamental human rights - civil, political, economic, social, and cultural - of those historically poor, discriminated against and excluded in Guatemalan society, with a particular focus on indigenous Guatemalans and the legacy of Guatemala's civil war.

Help the press in Guatemala know that its work is not going unnoticed by the outside world, and that they have our attention and support.

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