Death by Byline
An open letter from a Guatemalan reporter on living life under the gun
REUTERS / Daniel Leclair
Long before I became a reporter for elPeriódico de Guatemala, the careers of many of my country’s journalists had been terminated. Some abandoned the newsroom for less complicated jobs; others vanished from their desks and typewriters—only to show up in the morgues as victims of political violence, as one more desaparecido on the long list of casualties in Guatemala’s civil war.
Just type these five words into Google: periodistas asesinados conflicto armado Guatemala. The search engine will retrieve hundreds of thousands of pages. It is the same with any search, you might say. But there is a difference: This is not a search for the right restaurant or hotel. These are pages about reporters assassinated during the civil war that ran from 1960 to 1996; this is the history of journalism in my country.
Sometimes a search will show you what you don’t want to know. For example, in April 2000 a Spanish journalist was about to travel to Guatemala to work as a trainee for Prensa Libre, one of the country’s largest newspapers. When she showed her family the paper’s website, the computer screen showed the latest breaking news: A photographer had just been shot down while covering a violent demonstration. The journalist’s mother begged her not to travel to Guatemala, but she did, and a breaking news piece about her death is how we, her Guatemalan peers, heard about that story.
While I was researching assassinated Guatemalan journalists, I found a site that compiles facts and figures I’d never seen all in one place. I learned that during the 36-year Guatemalan civil war, 342 journalists were assassinated and 126 were illegally arrested or disappeared. That averages one attack on the press per month, consistently, between 1960 and 1996. The statistics come from the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, a group of the victims’ relatives. There was no investigation into any of these deaths, nor has there ever been a trial for the case of a journalist who disappeared during that time.
Peace accords were signed in 1996 at the end of the civil war, and after that Guatemalan journalism became a different story. The dark days faded into the light of a new era when a generation emerged from universities and filled the newsrooms with young reporters: men and women in their 20s who faced the challenge of starting their careers while they were writing a new chapter in the history of their country.
But since the peace accords were signed, there have still been threats. There have been illegal raids on the houses of several journalists. There have been calls meant to frighten journalists into silence. There have been advertisers that vanished from our pages and, in an economy as small as Guatemala’s, one advertiser sometimes speaks for ten businesses.
Freedom of expression is still vulnerable from all perspectives, even if it is hard to compare the number of journalists who have been killed or threatened during the last 16 years with the number of deaths during the war.
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