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Cerigua has spent years fighting for a program to protect journalists in Guatemala

Silvia Chocarro and Héctor Coloj in Geneva, March 2018
Silvia Chocarro and Héctor Coloj in Geneva, March 2018

Carmen Lucía Castaño

This is a translation of a statement that was originally published in Spanish on on 19 March 2018. Panorama is an information platform created by the RIDH (International Network of Human Rights).

On 12 and 13 March, the UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR) examined Guatemala. Héctor Coloj, a representative of Cerigua, an organisation that provides information with a human rights perspective and monitors attacks against journalists in Guatemala, and Silvia Chocarro, IFEX global advocacy strategist, were in Geneva to attend the review and provide information to the Committee regarding the situation of journalists in the Central American state. Panorama spoke with them.

Could you describe the work that IFEX does and your collaboration with Cerigua?

Silvia Chocarro: IFEX is a global network of 119 organizations that all work for freedom of expression and access to information, each from a different perspective.

We have been working with Guatemala for some time for several reasons. Firstly because we have seen the situation of journalists deteriorate and secondly because we think it is important for the network to support Cerigua, which has spent years calling on the government to fulfill its promise of creating a mechanism to protect journalists.

We also believe that the solidarity of other organizations in the network, which come from 65 countries, can put pressure on the government to finally stand by its word.

We had already worked together in the past and we are doing so now to go before the Human Rights Committee, but our collaboration does not end here. I would say that coming to Geneva is only the beginning: we will now continue to support Cerigua in its most important effort, which is ensuring that the State carries out its commitments.

What is the situation like for journalists in Guatemala?

Héctor Coloj: To understand the situation of journalists in Guatemala, we must first understand that there are two very different realities: that of the capital and that of those working outside of it.

Journalists working in the departments are the most vulnerable because they meet with officials in municipalities or government officials on a daily basis. Officials are among the main actors that have historically assaulted, threatened, attacked, or censored journalists, the local media, or, more recently, online platforms that report on happenings in these areas.

They also, however, have contact with another long-time aggressor of the press: organized crime. Journalists have said that on many occasions, these actors are linked. Outside of the capital, given their proximity to them, there is greater opportunity for attacks, threats, coercion, employing various forms of censorship, shutting down the media or getting them fired from local channels due to influence from politicians, or murder, which has happened in previous years.

More recently, one of the concerns has been the use of social networks to denigrate, attack, or defame journalists and the media. It is suspected that fake profiles related to the government are being used because the types of messages they send are quite similar to the so-called "hard line" of the authorities and others that are against the anti-corruption fight and the media that criticize corruption and write about it. This also happens to small media outlets that denounce mining, logging, or persecution of indigenous leaders.

Added to this are the absence of official statistics and underreporting on the attacks - because many journalists refrain from denouncing the acts publicly and filing criminal complaints due to lack of awareness or distrust of local authorities.

What is needed to launch the program to protect journalists?

HC: What is missing is for the political will to go from discourse to something concrete: two governments have shown their interest, they have reiterated it before mechanisms of the United Nations (UN) and the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), but this discourse is not reflected in the signing of a governmental agreement that would put actions into place to create the program to protect journalists. The Secretary of Social Communication has said that the president is willing to create it, that he will give all the necessary support, that interested entities can rest easy, but it does not go beyond these words.

The first offer to create this program was made on May 3, 2012 and was reiterated in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in October of the same year. In 2016, President Morales was clear and said that he supported the issue and instructed his officials to work on it.

Unfortunately, some bureaucrats, who are completely uninformed and oblivious of the commitments that Guatemala has taken on at the international and national levels, are blocking any progress on this topic and are not allowing the program to be implemented, meaning Guatemala, as a State, is not able to tell the UN or the Organization of American States (OAS) that it is effectively keeping its promises.

What strategy was used to present the situation to the UN Human Rights Committee?

SCh: To answer that question, I'll go back to what Héctor said: if there is no program to protect journalists, it is due to a lack of political will. That is one of the main reasons why we came; how can the political will of a government be changed? I can think of two ways: a significant mobilization of the society or pressure from abroad, from governments or institutions with which the State wishes to maintain a good relationship. We want the government to see that the international community is watching them and that certain countries or UN institutions are specifically asking them to start the program.

With respect to the strategy, we prepared a report with the most extensive information that Cerigua has regarding freedom of expression in Guatemala. We then sent it to the 18 CCPR experts to ensure they were aware of the situation and could ask questions during the review.

On their end, Cerigua did a press release before coming here, to inform the Guatemalan media that we are here to participate in the proceedings.

Lastly, the Committee dedicated a few minutes to the issue of freedom of expression and took up information and questions that we had proposed in the report, particularly regarding the protection program. The expert who addressed the issue asked if it was being implemented efficiently. Following the review, she told me that she did that because it is not just about getting the program started, but equipping it with the necessary human and financial resources to make it work.

What is your assessment of the process before the Committee?

HC: We appreciate that the Committee has spoken out on the issue of journalists, because the expert precisely spoke about the follow-up to the program, but also that they asked what they intend to do so that the criminal investigations move forward and those responsible for the attacks are sentenced.

Another expert spoke about community radio stations, which was something that we addressed in the informal meeting that we had with them: for many years, indigenous people have also been fighting for the media to recognize them. Although this was one of the agreements that the State signed in the peace accords, however, nothing has been done. On the contrary, it continues to criminalize community broadcasters. In 2012, there were changes to the general telecommunications law, but instead of giving them a space or supporting their development, they strengthened the radio and television monopolies.

What do you make of the State's silence before the multiple questions raised by the expert regarding freedom of expression and journalists?

HC: There is total lack of awareness of the issues on the side of the authorities that came. Guatemala sent an enormous delegation of almost 30 people, but I don't think that even half of them have any level of expertise in what they came to discuss. I do not believe that the president of the COPREDEH has any sort of information regarding the program, despite the fact that this is the presidential commission in charge of human rights.

We do not know whether within 48 hours of the evaluation there was a response, but in the report that they sent for the review they said that the president made a commitment, that there was political will, but that was it. We consider it a ploy to look good in front of the international community.

We reiterate: we need for this to go from discourse to something concrete and not be delayed any further. Discourse can sound great in international mechanisms and other spaces so that they see that Guatemala is in fact doing something for the protection of journalists, but the reality on the ground is totally different.

SCh: I do not know the context of Guatemala perfectly, but when the delegation remained silent on the issue of journalists, I thought that either there is a lack of knowledge and that they are saying nothing because they have nothing to say or the complete opposite: they know perfectly well that they do not want to take a stance on this issue because it gets them into trouble. Because the truth is that every time they come to the United Nations - and it also happened at the UPR - the protection program is mentioned and the unfulfilled promise.

I would have loved for them to have spoken about this, but let's wait to see what they say in writing.

What other bodies at the UN did you meet with during this visit to Geneva?

HC: We met with representatives of the rapporteurs on freedom of expression and human rights defenders. We explained the situation to them and mentioned our concerns regarding what may happen next year in terms of the electoral context and the discussion of laws seeking to criminalize criticisms of officials, which would not only affect the press and journalists, but also other social movements.

What are your expectations before the Committee?

HC: We hope that, with the information that we sent them and what we discussed in the informal meeting, they can make a strong recommendation with respect to this issue and that it does not just go in one ear and out the other for Guatemala, but that it reaffirms the international concern that media groups and civil society have expressed regarding what happens to journalists.

Hopefully this will be an incentive for the State: that they see it as an opportunity to demonstrate on an international scale that Guatemala is committed to respecting human rights, with an independent press, and that regardless of what happens, despite changes in the government, officials, and context, Guatemala is committed and will comply with the recommendations and promises that it adopted before different mechanisms.

How would you evaluate the process?

SCh: I am happy in the sense that, having been such a specific issue, an important space was dedicated to it and I consider it an achievement that the expert who spoke about it was quite convincing. We will be much happier if there is a recommendation following the release of the report.

We hope that all of this will serve to help the government of Guatemala begin to take concrete action and that we get down to work.

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