On World Press Freedom Day, CIVICUS speaks with Carlos Ernesto Choc, a Q’eqchi’ Mayan journalist with almost two decades of experience, about the criminalisation of journalism and the media in Guatemala.
What are the conditions for journalists in Guatemala?
The conditions for the practice of journalism in Guatemala are quite difficult. We face criminal prosecution by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and threats from various sources, including public officials that journalists are questioning or investigating. Defamation campaigns against journalists are also very concerning.
The internet and social media are full of trolls who send threatening and defamatory messages. They discredit journalistic work and attacks naturally follow. These even come from the state, and particularly from public security agencies. The National Civil Police attack the media and journalists both in the context of demonstrations and at other times and places where they do not want coverage of events in order to preserve impunity for crimes or violations of rights perpetrated on the ground.
Since 2015, aggressions against the press have only escalated. Now as well as being criminally prosecuted, judicially harassed, threatened, intimidated and vilified, you can be thrown into prison. To be able to do this, they accuse you of charges that are normally used to fight organised crime, such as illicit association, as in my case, or money laundering, as in the case of my colleague Rubén Zamora. In other words, we are accused of being criminals and prosecuted under accusations of having links to organised crime, leading land invasions or instigating crime. These are clearly fabricated accusations, so we are baselessly, illegally detained. They ultimately have no way of proving their accusations, but in the meantime you remain subject to lengthy criminal proceedings.
While all journalists are vulnerable in this country right now, those of us who investigate environmental aggression, human rights violations and issues related to drug trafficking and corruption are particularly vulnerable. These are really complicated issues and some investigate them anonymously because many have been murdered, the most recent being Eduardo Mendizabal, just over a month ago.
The situation is getting more complicated by the day and some community journalists have chosen to emigrate and quit journalism. It is sad to see colleagues leave, and under the current government there have been more and more of them. I don’t see myself in exile, but I view this as an option of last resort.
What is your situation after the criminalisation you have experienced?
Mine has been a case of judicial persecution that has been used to attempt to silence me. It started in 2017 when I was investigating the pollution of Lake Izabal. I was documenting protests by fishers against mining and I captured the exact moment when a protester was killed by shots fired by the National Civil Police. The accusation against me came from the mining company, Solway Investment Group – a Russian-owned company based in Switzerland. In August 2017, a warrant for my arrest was issued. One hearing after another was postponed so only in January 2019 could I finally give testimony before the court, as a result of which I was handed an alternative measure to prison.
When you have an alternative measure to imprisonment you are free under certain conditions: you are forced to visit the Public Prosecutor’s Office every 30 days to sign in and forbidden to be in any place where alcoholic drinks are sold, among other things. The security forces, the police, the authorities are watching where you are and waiting for you to commit a breach to be able to prosecute you. I see these alternative measures as forms of punishment that imply restrictions and limitations on your right to inform and be informed.
In January 2022, I was criminally prosecuted again, under accusations by the National Civil Police of instigating violence during a protest by Indigenous communities in Izabal against the country’s largest active open-pit mine, owned by Solway’s subsidiary Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel. Thirteen police officers accused me of having physically assaulted them, when all I was doing was documenting the moment when security forces repressed people with teargas. Since then I could not continue doing my job as a journalist, nor move around freely, until my lawyers managed to prove to the judge that I really am a journalist and not a criminal. In September the charges against me were dropped. It has been very exhausting: judicial harassment and criminal prosecution have wearing effects.
What strategies have journalists adopted to be able to continue working?
Strategies to break through censorship are renewed every day and are often focused on both physical and digital security, particularly concerning the security of documents and files. Local, national and international networking among journalists and alternative and independent media is also very important.
Such networks have made possible works such as Green Blood, published in 2019, and Mining Secrets, published in 2022. Both were led by Forbidden Stories, an organisation based in France that supports the publication of the work of journalists facing threats, criminalisation and violence in their countries. Green Blood was the result of research conducted in three countries on three continents: Guatemala, India and Tanzania, and looks into the mining industry’s tactics to hinder journalistic work and criminalise those who oppose its practices. Mining Secrets arose from the leak of a huge amount of Solway’s internal files concerning the operation of its Fénix mining project in Izabal. A consortium of 20 media outlets from 15 countries around the world carried out an investigation, with information corroborated by 65 journalists, including the Prensa Comunitaria team I was part of.
It is all about finding a way to continue doing the work you are doing. Like many others, I do journalism out of passion and conviction. I don’t expect a prize or international recognition. I know that what I am doing is going to help my community and society in general. I believe that shedding light on environmental damage and human rights violations is very important.
What kind of support do journalists and community media in Guatemala currently receive, and what additional support would they need?
We receive support mainly in the form of accompaniment: legal accompaniment, accompaniment from human rights organisations and accompaniment from communities and community authorities who support our work.
This is very important, but much more is needed. A difficulty that criminalised or at-risk journalists experience is that of surviving economically and supporting their families, which is why economic support is important. The same goes for health support, because there are times when, due to all you are going through, your body no longer responds. Finally, it is key to provide opportunities for exchange with other journalist colleagues. It helps a lot to learn about the experiences of others.
Civic space in Guatemala is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @CarlosErnesto_C on Twitter.