Guatemala. Don’t put the Guatemalan press in quarantine!

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by the open hostility that Guatemala’s new president is showing towards the media and calls for more governmental transparency so that journalists can cover the coronavirus pandemic.

In an open letter published on 12 April, more than 100 Guatemalan journalists and human rights organizations complained about the obstacles to which the media have been subjected since the epidemic’s official arrival in Guatemala, including difficulty accessing state-held information, censorship by government officials and public humiliation.

The letter revealed that the officials in charge of the government’s communication arbitrarily removed several journalists from WhatsApp groups after being visibly annoyed by their questions about the location and origin of the latest Covid-19 cases.

These censorship attempts and the openly hostile posture is getting a great deal of encouragement from the new president, Alejandro Giammattei, who lost little time in manifesting his contempt for the press after being sworn in on 14 January.

On the steps outside the parliament building on 18 March, he directed an anti-bacterial spray towards journalists while referring ironically to “anti-journalist protection.” On 21 March, a few days before imposing a curfew, he said: “I would like to put the media in quarantine but I cannot.

On 11 April, he said the government would provide no information about Covid-19 victims except their age and gender, so that the media would not publish sensitive information and would not try to “make a fuss.”

The government is furthermore now providing the media with very little information of any kind, using social isolation measures as a pretext for holding no more press conferences. As a result, it has even become very hard for journalists to keep track of the president’s agenda.

The Guatemalan press must not be put in quarantine,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau. “Sidelining the press and systematic attacks on journalists are totally counter-productive and endanger the right to information and the very health of Guatemala’s citizens.

A report released by the Association of Guatemalan Journalists (APG) for World Press Freedom Day on 3 May described the media environment as complex and dangerous and detailed the serious decline in freedom of expression in Guatemala.

Guatemala is ranked 116th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.