Democracy-conscious Guatemalans – and especially intimidation-weary journalists – will hold their breaths Nov. 9 as the country elects its fifth president under its 18-year-old democracy.
The stakes are high. Among the crowded field of candidates is former military strongman Efraín Ríos Montt, 77, once the most popular political figure in Guatemala but one not known for his tolerance of media criticism.
Ríos Montt, who took power after a 1982 coup by reform-minded junior officers and ruled for 17 months, is accused of widespread human rights abuses, including genocide of Mayan Indians in areas seen as sympathetic to leftist guerrillas during the 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. Others revered him for his no-nonsense efforts to crush the guerrillas and for suppressing rampant street crime.
He was once precluded from running under a provision of the current 1985 constitution that barred anyone who has seized power in a coup. But in 1999, his protégé, Alfonso Portillo, was elected president in a landslide under the banner of Ríos Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front, or FRG. The party also won control of Congress and elected Ríos Montt its presiding officer. Portillo named enough FRG appeals judges that the constitutional provision barring Ríos Montt’s candidacy was overturned in June on grounds that it could not be applied retroactively.
Relations have frequently been tempestuous between the Guatemalan press and thin-skinned elected civilian presidents who resorted to overt and covert measures to intimidate their critics. But under Portillo, relations with journalists have become openly hostile, particularly with newspapers.
“Things got worse under Portillo, especially in the last year and a half,” said Juan Luis Font, director, or editor, of El Periódico, a high-brow daily that is among the four papers in the group owned by the prestigious Prensa Libre. “He’s been the most criticized president, that’s true, but that’s because he’s the most corrupt. That doesn’t make him the most tolerant.”
Meanwhile, the two over-the-air television stations with news operations are owned by Mexican businessman Angel González, who has adapted himself – chameleonlike – to whatever party is in power to ward off legislation that would break up his monopoly ownership of the country’s four television stations. González-owned radio stations also have been faithfully pro-government. The only major broadcast entity to take an opposition line is Guatevisión, Prensa Libre’s new cable channel.
It has been Prensa Libre’s four dailies and the two owned by its competitor, Siglo Veintiuno, that have exposed rampant corruption within the Portillo government. Portillo and Ríos Montt have been stung not only by the exposés, but by blistering editorials and merciless cartoons. The criticism, and the government’s reaction to it, reached a crescendo this summer after the legalization of Ríos Montt’s candidacy.
On June 24, 11 armed men and one woman stormed into the home of José Rubén Zamora, one of the country’s most prominent journalists, now the president (executive editor) of El Periódico. For two hours, the attackers terrorized Zamora, his wife and three sons and his household employees.
“They were well-organized and talking with bosses on walkie-talkies,” said Seda Pumpyanskaya, a former Russian journalist who is now spokeswoman for the U.N. Verification Mission to Guatemala, which investigated the incident. “It was clearly not a crime. They didn’t steal anything but their passports, mobile phones and credit cards. The clear goal was to intimidate the family.
“Two of the sons, who are aged from 13 to 24, were kicked. Zamora was taken to another room and completely undressed. His family thought they were never going to see him (alive) again. They said something about him never being able to immigrate to the United States. They held a gun to his head for 20 minutes.”
What provoked such a bold attack?
“This came the day after he wrote a very harsh column about Ríos Montt,” Pumpyanskaya said. “Zamora has a very harsh style, and he is very well known. But he also has a political history.”
She explained that Zamora was asked to become the vice presidential candidate of Oscar Berger, the frontrunner in the campaign, but he turned it down. “However, he is involved in the campaign,” she said.
Zamora is accustomed to angering presidents. The founding editor of Siglo Veintiuno (21st Century) in 1990, Zamora received the Maria Moors Cabot Award for his opposition to then-President Jorge Serrano. In 1993, Serrano attempted to suspend the constitution, rule by decree and subject the country’s independent media to prior censorship. After a week, he fled into exile in Panama, taking with him $25 million from the treasury. Guatemala is still seeking his extradition.
President Alvaro Arz?, elected in 1995, used economic measures to attempt to cow the opposition media into submission. He threatened businesses that advertised in hostile newspapers with tax audits, and he successfully lobbied wealthy friends to acquire a controlling interest in Siglo Veintiuno. Soon afterward, Zamora was fired. Arz?’s friends also obtained control of the country’s only weekly newsmagazine, Crónica, which lost its credibility and ceased publication.
Pumpyanskaya said Attorney General Carlos de León suggested Zamora staged the June 24 incident to discredit the government. “It was clear that it was not staged,” she said.
The gate to the El Periódico offices is now flanked by shotgun-wielding guards in flak jackets, and Zamora is escorted by two bodyguards. He has moved his family to Miami.
“I see him as very changed by these events,” Pumpyanskaya said. Zamora was unavailable for an interview.
Pumpyanskaya said in the weeks that followed, several journalists in the interior were either assaulted or threatened.
In July, when the Supreme Court agreed to an opposition petition to rehear arguments on the Ríos Montt candidacy, the FRG orchestrated a public demonstration designed to intimidate the Supreme Court and anyone else who sought to block Ríos Montt’s return to power – especially journalists. Busloads of Mayan peasants were brought into Guatemala City on July 24, paid the equivalent of $40 and promised two days’ meals. The demonstration turned violent when scores of FRG loyalists, clad in ski masks and equipped with clubs, went on a rampage, smashing store windows, setting barricades of tires on fire and attacking the journalists covering the event, even those from the pro-government Channels 3 and 7.
One of them, Héctor Ramírez, a 62-year-old veteran police reporter with Notisiete, Channel 7’s news operation, suffered a heart attack while being pursued by masked, club-wielding goons and died on the scene.
Héctor Estrada, 26, a cameraman for Guatevisión, was at a separate location when he and other journalists were attacked.
“We saw a group of hooded people and started filming,” he recalled. “More and more people arrived, some with clubs and guns. They began burning tires, and we began running toward them. We didn’t think it was dangerous. When we got there, they were beating Juan Carlos Torres, a reporter with El Periódico. I thought maybe the presence of my camera would deter them, but it didn’t.
“When I got close, they said, ‘We don’t want any more press here,’ and one of them put his hand over the lens. They were beating my colleague (Torres) with clubs. I moved back, but then I got close again because I needed (to film) the images. They began splashing gasoline on me and grabbed my camera, but I wouldn’t let go. There were about eight of them, all in ski masks. They began kicking me. Three came at me with machetes, slashing the air. There were no police. They splashed gasoline on Torres, and he took off running. I broke loose and ran, too. I got to a press vehicle from another medium – I don’t remember which – with my reporter, Jorge Rodríguez, and the other photographers. We got into the car and took off with them (attackers) running after us.”
The Guatemalan media have since referred to the July 24 incidents as Jueves Negro, or Black Thursday. The government lamely denied it had anything to do with the disturbances, which the U.N. Mission disputed after an investigation.
“Clearly, it was very well-organized,” Pumpyanskaya said. “It was clear the police did not act. They kept three blocks away. We talked to the president at noon, and he said he would use the military to restore order. At 3 p.m., he went on television and said the same thing. The military never appeared.”
The demonstrations continued the following day, but with less violence. Then Ríos Montt ordered the protesters to return home, and they immediately dispersed.
“The press did an incredible job, but that’s a separate story,” Pumpyanskaya said. “The reporting was excellent. It was a great time for Guatevisión. They showed it for 12 hours. The photos in El Periódico and Prensa Libre showed the secretary of Zury Ríos (Ríos Montt’s daughter, herself second vice president of the Congress) and Ingrid Argueta, a niece of Ríos Montt. They showed Jorge Arévalo, the No. 3 in the Congress for the FRG, pulling up his ski mask so he could talk on the (cell) phone. Many other (FRG) leaders were shown organizing.”
At the pro-government Channel 7, the reporters, angered by the death of their colleague and by orders to downplay the violence, staged a rebellion against news director Juan Carlos Lange.
“Ramírez’s orders had been to cover the events lightly,” said Gina Serrano, then a producer at Notisiete and Ramírez’s boss. After Ramírez died, she said, the other reporters told Lange, “Please, for one day, report what had really happened. He agreed, because he was really upset that they had killed his best reporter. The next day, everything returned to the old way.”
Serrano said she resigned soon after Jueves Negro in disgust over the conflicts of interest she saw at Notisiete, including journalists performing public relations behind the scenes for government officials such as Attorney General de León. She said one of Lange’s children worked in de León’s office and that Lange “personally reviewed news stories about de León. I saw this with my own eyes.”
Serrano, who now works as spokeswoman for a Guatemalan human rights pressure group, said Angel González is terrified that if Berger wins the presidency, the next congress will break up his broadcast monopoly.
At Guatevisión, news director Haroldo Sánchez received a death threat in the mail two weeks after Jueves Negro, berating him for the station’s coverage. The language was standard FRG rhetoric and called Rigoberta Mench?, the human rights activist and Nobel laureate, “cara de nalgas,” or “buttock face.”
José Eduardo Zarco, executive vice president of Guatevisíon, shrugged off the threat.
“It’s part of the profession here now,” he said sanguinely. Zarco’s father was a founder of Prensa Libre and was kidnapped and murdered by leftist guerrillas in 1970.
In a private interview, Zury Ríos repeated the government’s denial that the FRG had organized the demonstrations. Asked to comment on the U.N. Mission’s report to the contrary, she said, “The U.N. Mission has become very politicized.”
Of her father’s stormy relations with the press, she said, “Our quarrel is not with journalists, but with the owners.” But she admitted she had her own “personal complaint” against the newspapers.
“Do you know what they say about me?” she said. “They don’t report what I say. They report how I’m dressed, how I’m made up, about how many times I’ve been married (three), about whether or not I’m sterile because I’m 38 and I don’t have any children. If I were a man, do you think they’d report what color my tie is?”
The events of Jueves Negro apparently backfired against Ríos Montt. He plummeted from third place to fifth place in the polls.
“Guatemalans reject violence, especially when someone who has been accused of violence is being violent again,” observed Mario Antonio Sandoval, president of Guatevisión and political columnist for Prensa Libre. “Ríos Montt hanged himself when he announced that the mob was going to withdraw, and they withdrew in five minutes. This proof of violence is what Guatemalans don’t like. He is the violence. He means the violence.”
The FRG’s denial of its involvement in Jueves Negro appeared even more hollow when the print media reported that several of the candidates named to the party’s list of candidates for Congress were among those photographed participating in the disturbances, including Argueta. Another candidate is Lucrecia Marroquín de Palomo, wife of Francisco Palomo, the Constitutionality Court judge who cast the deciding vote in favor of Ríos Montt’s candidacy. This quickly became grist for political cartoonists.
Recent polls suggest Berger may win a first-round victory. If none of the 12 candidates receives 50 percent, a runoff will be held Dec. 28.
In a private interview, Berger expressed fear that the Portillo government would resort to electoral fraud to boost Ríos Montt’s candidacy.
As for the FRG’s intimidation of the media, Berger vowed – as Portillo had done four years earlier – to respect freedom of the press.
“In my eight years as mayor of Guatemala City, I always enjoyed an excellent relationship with the press,” he said.
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is associate professor of communication at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and author of a reference book on Latin America. He is co-chair of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee.