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Jimmy Morales' presidency ends with significant setbacks to freedom of expression in Guatemala

Association

On 18th December 2019, the offices of LGBTI youth association Somos Jóvenes Diversos en Acción (SOMOS) were raided in Guatemala City. Unknown persons broke into their offices overnight and took property and documents belonging to the association. The raid took place hours before the presentation of a bill to strengthen penalties for discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, introduced by deputy Karina Paz together with SOMOS and other civil society organisations. The Association condemned the incident and requested a prompt investigation from relevant authorities to bring those responsible to justice. SOMOS also appealed to the Ministry of Government to ensure the safety of their staff. The Guatemalan Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concern at this attack and urged for an investigation.

Defender criminalised under old charges

In a separate development, Indigenous human rights defender and journalist Francisco Lucas Pedro was detained by the Guatemalan National Police on 21st December 2019, under accusations that included terrorism, kidnapping and arson. Lucas, who is also known by his Mayan Q'anjob'al name Palas Luin, is a correspondent for community press outlet Prensa Comunitaria. He was engaged in a campaign against the construction of a dam on the Q'am B'alam river, and the criminal case against him was based on a complaint made in 2012 by the company that planned the project. The warrant for Lucas Pedro’s arrest in December 2019 allegedly referred to charges that had been dropped in 2016. He was held in the department of Huehuetenango for 13 days until a court order suspended his case for lack of supporting evidence.

During this period, Prensa Comunitaria denounced the political nature of this arrest and the irregularities in the process. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala expressed concern with this case and indigenous leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchú, also spoke out for the defender’s release.

2019 particularly violent for defenders in Guatemala

Civil society organisation Unidad de Protección a Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos (Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders - UDEFEGUA) published a report of attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala from January to 15th December 2019. 462 assaults, 15 assassinations and 5 attempted murders were documented in the period. The organisation highlighted that 2019 was the fourth most violent year for defenders in the 19 years since UDEFEGUA began to document such attacks. Alarmingly, state actors were responsible for almost 70% of the attacks registered. In UDEFEGUA’s analysis, the criminalisation of defenders’ work has been encouraged by public officials. In this period, 312 cases of criminalisation were documented; the majority of these involved defamation, with 253 incidents documented, but also included instances of unfounded judicial complaints, illegal detentions and arbitrary detentions.

Peaceful Assembly

On 14th January 2020, Alejandro Giammattei was sworn in as the president of Guatemala. On the same day, former president Jimmy Morales and former vice-president Jafeth Cabrera were sworn in to the Central American Parliament (Parlacen) of the multilateral Central American Integration System. This was viewed by critics as a manoeuvre to maintain Morales and Cabrera’s parliamentary immunity, allowing them to avoid investigations into corruption during their years in office. Several civil society organisations campaigned for Morales’ arrest and 60 CSOs announced protests on the day of the inauguration. Because of the demonstrations, Morales’ swearing in ceremony had to be moved from the Parlacen’s headquarters in Guatemala City to a hotel. At the hotel, police intervened to disperse protesters and allow Morales and Cabrera to enter the building. According to reports, police officers used pepper gas against demonstrators. Six student protesters were detained during the clashes and released on 15th January 2020. The new administration issued a statement saying that an investigation would be conducted and that the anti-riot police had acted on orders from public officials nominated by the previous government, as the new servants had yet to take office.

Expression

On 8th January 2020, former president Jimmy Morales snapped at a journalist from La Hora newspaper when asked about reports of Mexican citizens potentially being sent to Guatemala as part of the country’s Asylum Cooperation Agreement (ACA) with the United States. Morales told the journalist, “If you’re so macho, ask the United States.” Morales went on to question the funding and interests of the newspaper.

On 18th January 2020, reporter Fredy Chaperón of Knal 4 Quiché was attacked while covering a story related to a fire in a fireworks factory in Chichicastenango, Quiché department. Three relatives of people who suffered burns in the incident reportedly accused Chaperón of exploiting the victims’ pain for profit. The journalist was beaten and had to be taken to a hospital for treatment. Security forces present at the scene allegedly did nothing to stop the attack. According to a statement from the Guatemalan journalists’ association, the group also threatened other journalists who were working on the day.

Reports on a concerning situation for freedom of expression

In November 2019, the Guatemalan journalists association Asociación de Periodistas de Guatemala (APG) published the report “Four years of regression, a constant assault against the press”. The publication describes 2019 as the year in which journalism was most attacked during Jimmy Morales’ term as president. Outlining several attacks against freedom of expression from 2016 to 2019, the organisation stressed that Morales' administration was marked by his confrontational attitude towards the press and that his mandate ended with significant setbacks to freedom of expression in Guatemala. According to APG’s analysis, Morales sought to delegitimate the press and, on several occasions, even used security forces to intimidate those who carry out journalistic work. Members of Congress and the Judiciary were also involved in restricting freedom of the press.

Similarly, according to figures published by Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office on 5th December 2019, there were 65 complaints denouncing crimes against journalists in Guatemala from January to October 2019. 13 different offences were documented by the Unit of Crimes against Journalists, including threats, abuse of authority, coercion, minor injuries, theft, illegal detention, attacks with firearms and sexual assault. 24 of the cases, or 37 percent, involved threats. On 6th December 2019, a Prosecutor’s Office Section for Crimes against Journalists was created.