Guatemala downgraded in global human rights report as assault on independent voices continues16 March, 2023
- Guatemala downgraded to second-worst category, ‘repressed’
- Lack of judicial independence and criminalisation of journalists
- Attacks on human rights defenders on the rise
Guatemala has been downgraded from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ in a new report by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. The report, People Power Under Attack 2022, says a pattern of criminalisation of justice operators, human rights defenders and journalists amid an increasingly hostile environment for civil society led to the downgrade.
A ‘repressed’ rating means civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, are significantly constrained in Guatemala. It is the second-worst rating a country can receive by the CIVICUS Monitor, and other repressed countries include Mexico, Honduras and Venezuela.
Human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists in Guatemala have been subject to harassment, criminalisation and detentions, while the government has made moves to undermine the rule of law. The Attorney General’s Office has overseen the dismantling of previous anti-corruption efforts using unfounded prosecutions, which have mainly targeted justice operators who contributed to the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) between 2007 and 2019. Several have been investigated, detained, convicted or been forced into exile.
In December 2022, a Guatemala City court sentenced Virginia Laparra to four years in prison for ‘continued power abuses.’ The court also imposed a fine and banned Laparra from working as a lawyer or taking public office for four years. Laparra, a former prosecutor of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), was arrested in February 2022 in a case that lacked evidence to justify charges against her. Justice operators who investigated cases of serious human rights violations in Guatemala’s armed conflict have also been persecuted.
Judicial harassment and criminalisation have also been key strategies adopted by power holders to intimidate and repress independent press. In June 2022, for instance, a journalist was beaten, detained and had his equipment damaged by police officers when covering the repression of a protest. Investigators shelved his complaint against the officers who assaulted him. Meanwhile, charges against him - initially dismissed by a local court - were reinstated at public prosecutors’ request. Separately, at the end of February, a court ordered investigations into several journalists for their work. The use of harassment tactics to silence critics and curb activism was the most prevalent civic rights violation in the Americas in 2022.
“In Guatemala, people and organisations undertaking crucial work to stamp out corruption and document human rights abuses have done so at great personal risk. They face criminalisation, threat of detention, harassment and attacks. The downgrade in its civic space ratings highlights this worrying deterioration,” said Isabel Rosales, Advocacy Officer for CIVICUS.
Civil society groups have warned of a climate of hostility, harassment, and persecution against human rights defenders under the Giammattei government. Attacks on HRDs rose sharply in 2020 and 2021, with over a thousand cases documented in each year by human rights organisation UDEFEGUA. This trend continued in 2022. Institutional mechanisms to protect and monitor the situation of activists were weakened in recent years.
In October 2022, UDEFEGUA itself was targeted by an online smear campaign with anonymous bot accounts accusing the organisation of committing criminal offences and delegitimating their work. Some of their staff, including lead figures within the organisation, were threatened with physical violence.
The gradual erosion of judicial independence has enabled the reduction of the space for civil society and independent press. On 12th May 2021, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned a previous ruling that had halted the implementation of the “NGO Law” (Decree 4-2020), a set of amendments to the legislation on non-governmental organisations. This reform imposes sweeping controls over civil society and gives government discretion to dissolve organisations and cancel their registration. Increasing authoritarianism is particularly concerning in light of the country’s upcoming general elections in June 2023 which could lead to a consolidation of this reduced civic space.
Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 490 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2022.
Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
Guatemala is now rated ‘repressed’ on the CIVICUS Monitor. There are 49 other countries with this rating (see all). Visit Guatemala’s homepage on the CIVICUS Monitor for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates.
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