Death by Byline
(Page 2 of 4)
Cerigua (Center of Informative Reports on Guatemala) is an alternative news agency that runs Observatorio de los Periodistas (Journalists Observatory), a project focused on freedom of expression for the press. Ileana Alamilla, director of Cerigua, explained to me that since 2003 the observatory has worked to compile and make public every case of a reporter’s violated freedom of expression in Guatemala: a total of 394 from 2003 to 2010.
That figure includes verbal and physical aggression, attacks, threats, harassment, persecution, intimidation, defamation, reporters harmed by bullets, and even allegations from reporters of attempts to limit their access to information. The hard number comes later: Out of those 394 cases, the number of assassinated journalists is 20.
What has not changed in Guatemala since the war is the judicial system’s response. Rarely do any of the crimes Cerigua documents make it to court for a trial. Impunity is severe here and sends a radical message: An unpunished crime is a crime that never happened.
The civil war may have ended, but another armed conflict has arisen: the battle against the traffic of illegal drugs. Guatemala is located in such a strategic position that the U.S. State Department estimates that at least 75 percent of the drugs distributed in its territory are trafficked through Guatemala. We can argue about the figures, but the signs are clear.
I began to write this letter a few weeks after the massacre of 27 peasants on a farm in La Libertad, Petén. Days after that, a young district attorney was slaughtered in Cobán, Alta Verapaz.
All of these victims were beheaded.
ElPeriódico is based in Guatemala City. You must travel four hours to get to Cobán and eight to get to La Libertad. But fear traveled faster after the killings and, like a dark and heavy blanket, covered the newsrooms of the capital city. I won’t ever forget the face of the youngest reporter in elPeriódico, who also happened to cover the police. He came to my desk that day and said, “I’m not going to sign those stories. Please take out my byline.” His reasons were obvious: I saw miedo, the fear in his face. He seemed so vulnerable. Shy and funny, young and skinny, with long hair that draped over his forehead. Still a college student who’d been at elPeriódico for four months, he covered one of the more violent cities in Latin America.
I thought it normal for him to ask for his byline to be removed, being so young. But the next day when I read the daily papers, I was shocked to see that none of the journalists in Guatemala had signed their stories. Not even the follow-up stories related to the massacre were signed.
One of the oldest and largest papers also decided not to include any of those events on the cover. Instead, the killing of the prosecutor was a secondary note on page 10.