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IFEX MEMBERS EXPRESS CONCERN OVER FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SITUATION IN GUATEMELA

Imagine being a journalist and not being able to sit behind a steering wheel without constantly checking your mirrors to see if you are being followed, or seldom leaving your home after dark, fearing for your own and your family's life.

Such is the case in some of the worst places in Guatemala, said 10 local journalists, who shared their stories at a regional free expression meeting hosted by the IFEX Clearing House in Antigua last week. Their stories added weight to the joint press statement by nine Latin American IFEX members that condemned the growing insecurity that is threatening press freedom in Guatemala and called on the government to proactively protect the media.

The journalists confirmed the problematic public security situation in Guatemala - especially in Zacapa, Izabal, Huehuetenango, Alta Verapaz and San Marcos - and the fear they have when covering violent events. Two of the journalists were among the 10 who received death threats and the 13 that were assaulted in 2008, according to IFEX member in Guatemala the Centre for Informative Reports on Guatemala (CERIGUA), who says the numbers are likely higher than reported as victims prefer to remain silent.

The journalists said that the main threats to free expression come from drug traffickers and organised criminals, especially in rural areas. In this context, the press has felt compelled to use self-censorship as its first line of defence. For those who continued their trade under deteriorating security conditions, some have paid with their lives, such as Jorge Menda, Ruben Bozarreyes and Abel Giron last year.

There is a lack of commitment on the part of local authorities to protect the media, said the journalists and other reporters representing mainstream media houses who attended a conference in Guatemala City where the joint statement was released. Several journalists who have tried to cover incidents of violence and corruption related to drug trafficking and poverty have been accused by the state of reporting brutality to increase sales. According to CERIGUA, the authorities, such as the police force, are responsible for many instances of intimidation and attacks against journalists. And very rarely are the perpetrators brought to justice.

Deputy Minister of State Arnoldo Villagrán, who attended the Antigua meeting, confirmed that the violence in Guatemala stems from the emerging drug trade and internal rivalries between cartels. He said the government planned to strengthen the police force as well as institutions at the community level to improve public security in general.

While the IFEX members welcomed the plan, they also urged the government to work together with civil society to establish mechanisms to protect journalists and media outlets, investigate crimes against journalists and create a human rights training programme for police officers and public officials.

Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on Free Expression and Opinion and Catalina Botero, the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, who also attended the Antigua meeting, explained that press security and safety are important components of their mandates as rapporteurs on freedom of expression.

The meeting brought IFEX members in the region together to discuss future collaboration on free expression in Latin America.

Also visit these links:
- CERIGUA reports: http://tinyurl.com/bpwxhf
- IFEX Guatemala page: http://tinyurl.com/bpmtkp
(4 February 2009)

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