The right to know

By Gerson Ortiz

Journalism faces an unprecedented siege. The Association of Journalists of Guatemala (APG) registers 389 acts of harassment and limitations to journalistic work during the government of President Alejandro Giammattei, 105 of these attacks have occurred between January and October 2022.

As in the darkest hours of the country’s history, Giammattei’s repressive logic has once again put on the table the slogan of punishment for speaking out, through silencing the messenger at any cost. In this twisted eagerness, he has placed the entire state apparatus at the service of this perverse logic: the imprisonment, persecution and harassment of journalists are the clearest evidence that rummaging through the sewers of corruption deserves an exemplary punishment: jail or exile.

But although criminal prosecution, judicial harassment, constant discrediting in Netcenter accounts and physical aggressions against journalists can be catalogued as the most serious violations of freedom of expression, these are not the only ones. The Giammattei government has taken other measures that directly violate this human and universal right, some of which I quote below.

At the beginning of April 2022, the State of Guatemala filed an appeal for clarification before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR Court) in which it requests “clarification” of the concept of Community Radio, arguing that it does not exist in the current legal system.

This action was brought by the State of Guatemala against the judgment of the IACHR Court of October 6, 2021, which orders the country to apply a policy of distribution of radio frequencies that “guarantees the voice and presence of all sectors of society”. This attitude on the part of the State is clearly delaying the application of a ruling that favors community radio stations and freedom of expression.

Another action that violates this right has been seen in the failure to comply with the Law on Access to Public Information. According to the last report of the Secretariat of Access to Public Information of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Secai), 334 subjects obliged to report on their actions regarding requests for access to information failed to comply with this mandate, most of the violations come from trusts, mining companies, oil companies, hydroelectric companies and NGOs that receive state transfers.

In addition, it has been notorious the “closing of ranks” in government institutions to shield certain information for the benefit of the status quo. For example, access to public data has been denied under arbitrary criteria such as cataloging the information as “personal data”, when what is required are accountability reports, something normal in a democracy.

The blocking of journalists’ Twitter accounts by public officials has been another action that violates freedom of expression. As harmless as it may seem, every time a public official blocks a journalist he or she is, in turn, restricting his or her oversight work, which also restricts the citizen’s right to know.

Freedom of expression is a universal right that all of us can and should exercise, however, the crusade that has been launched against journalists and media outlets is not only an attempt against the life and integrity of communicators. These actions have a direct impact on the citizen’s right to be informed, to know how and where the State spends the public budget and who is behind the elected officials to be appointed in the 2023 elections, to cite two examples.

There is a well-oiled state machinery behind all these repressive measures against freedom of expression. For every journalist injured, criminalized, prosecuted, harassed in social networks, imprisoned or exiled, there will be thousands of citizens who lose a fundamental right without which democracy cannot be fully exercised: the right to know.

Gerson is a journalist and communicologist graduated from the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. He worked as a reporter and columnist at La Hora and as editor and editor-in-chief at elPeriódico. He has collaborated in international media such as Cinco Días (Spain), CNN (United States) and Exandas (Greece). In 2018 he published Soñarás jamás (Linotipo Editorial) and in 2020, La lengua de los gatos (Independiente), books of short narrative.