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NGO oversight law limits and restricts freedom of association in Guatemala

Association

On 11th February 2020, the Guatemalan Congress approved a decree (No. 4-2020) which would impose sweeping controls over civil society, restricting freedom of association in the country. Favourable legislators say the reform of the Law of Non-governmental Organisations for Development (Ley de Organizaciones No Gubernamentales para el Desarrollo) enables “transparency and oversight”, but critics argue it establishes harsh sanctions which authorise the arbitrary closure of organisations. Several provisions in the decree were considered concerning by national and international civil society, including:

  • Criminalisation of foreign funding for “activities that alter public order in national territory.” (Art. 13) An organisation that violates this provision will immediately lose its legal personality with its members prohibited from joining any other NGO for no less than two years. What constitutes “altering public order” is undefined, which would enable the use of this law to limit the work of organisations expressing criticism, dissent or denouncing government activity and policy.
  • Automatic cancellation of legal status and dissolution of any NGOs which fail to update their registration information with multiple agencies and comply with all requirements of the new law within six months.
  • Forced closure of any NGO if requested by the Ministry of the Interior, the Superintendent of Tax Administration and the General Controller of Accounts over the violation of any law. The legislation also fails to establish a guarantee of due process, leaving organisations vulnerable to arbitrary closure.

Guatemalan civil society also criticised the rushed approval process, which they claim was not transparent and lacked debate. The bill was reportedly introduced at the last minute for Congressional discussion, surprising members of the opposition as well as civil society.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Assembly and Association, Clement Voule, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) noted that the adoption of this law is incompatible with the rights to free association, calling it a drastic measure. Several Guatemalan organisations have filed legal challenges and launched a campaign asking newly invested President Alejandro Giammattei to veto the decree. According to newspaper Prensa Libre, Congress President Allan Rodriguez said that he would not allow “any interference of any kind” and would not tolerate recommendations or pressure against the decree.

Despite controversies, on 27th February 2020 president Alejandro Giammattei sanctioned the decree. However, on 2nd March 2020, the country’s Constitutional Court provisionally suspended the legislation.

Expression

On 10th February 2020, news outlets reported that more than 15 Guatemalan women journalists received harassing calls in which an unknown woman pretended to be an old friend in order to carry out a phishing attack. As denounced by the Association of Journalists of Guatemala and the Freedom of the Press Commission, the caller tried to obtain personal information from the journalists, including their location. The press organisations called this a “new form of vandalism to create terror, fear and uncertainty in the journalistic profession and in the population in general”. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has opened investigations into these cases.

Defender cleared of defamation charges

Indigenous human rights defender Daniel Pascual Hernandez, a Maya K’iche coordinator of the grassroots organisation Comité de Unidad Campesina (Committee for Campesino Unity - CUC), was acquitted in a criminal case accusing him of libel, defamation and slander. The case against Pascual Hernandez had been ongoing since 2013, when he was mobilising against the construction of a cement manufacturing plant with flower farmers in the community of San Juan Sacatepequez. At the time, Pascual Hernandez publicly supported community leaders who had received death threats for defending their land rights. On 25th January 2013, in a press conference, he mentioned the connection between these attacks and campaigns to discredit human rights work by organisations such as the Foundation against Terrorism. Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, filed a lawsuit against the defender.