Last Updated: Wednesday, 01 October 2014, 14:56 GMT

Speaking Out: Postwar journalism in Guatemala and El Salvador

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Author Marylene Smeets
Publication Date February 2000
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Speaking Out: Postwar journalism in Guatemala and El Salvador, February 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c567c52a.html [accessed 1 October 2014]
Comments This report was included as a Special Report in CPJ's "Attacks on the Press in 1999".
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Guatemala and El Salvador have both emerged from bloody civil wars fought between conservative central governments and leftist insurgents. And in both countries, the press is beginning to show signs of independence.

Last April, a mysterious program called "Hoy por Hoy" ("Right Now") appeared on Guatemalan radio. The format consisted of gossip and political chitchat, and the hosts seemed to have it in for journalists. One of them often described Dina Fernández, a columnist and editor at Guatemala's biggest daily, Prensa Libre, and her mother, Dina García, one of the owners, as bad journalists and loose women.

To many Guatemalan journalists, the personal attacks seemed orchestrated. Nobody, not even the director of the radio station that broadcast "Hoy por Hoy," knew who was responsible for its contents. But suspicion immediately fell on Guatemalan president Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen, who already had a very hostile relationship with the press. Arzú had succeeded in damaging critical publications by depriving them of government advertising. And he had allowed the government-funded television and radio program "Avances" ("Progress") to be used for partisan political purposes, trumpeting the government's achievements and attacking the press for unfavorable coverage of his regime.

Certainly, the staff of the Guatemala City daily elPeriódico suspected government involvement. In an editorial published on June 1, the paper, which was created in 1996 and rapidly became a small but influential voice in Guatemalan journalism, noted that it was "not out of this world to think that the government could be using a radio program such as 'Hoy por Hoy' to discredit or undermine the independent press and the opposition in general." A team of elPeriódico reporters set out to discover who was behind the broadcast.

Their investigation bore fruit. On June 17, elPeriódico's front page carried the headline "Who's behind 'Hoy por Hoy'?" as well as a photo of a perplexed-looking Mariano Rayo, special adviser to the president. Using neat deduction, the accompanying article established that Rayo had founded the company responsible for the controversial program.

On June 18, Fernández addressed Rayo directly in her column: "You have dishonored the government and the governing party," she wrote. "It has been demonstrated, once again, that there are people [in your government] who attempt to destroy the press, maybe not murdering us as before, but disqualifying and asphyxiating us."

On June 23, the opposition Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) summoned Rayo to a hearing in Congress. Having endured a lengthy grilling about the program, he was asked to leave the government. Rayo then submitted his resignation to President Arzú, who refused to accept it. And even while the governing party's ethics committee was looking into the case, the party's executive committee confirmed Rayo, who was not a party member before the "Hoy por Hoy" scandal broke, as one of its preferred candidates in the November elections to the Legislative Assembly. Predictably, the ethics committee absolved him, and Rayo was elected deputy. "In any other country this would have destroyed his aspirations," said Fernández. "Here they reward him.... There's no American happy ending: Mariano Rayo will live happily ever after."

Better days for the press?

While the "Hoy por Hoy" scandal was disturbing, the fact that elPeriódico was investigating slander instead of murder shows just how far the Guatemalan press has come since the country's 36-year-long civil war officially ended, in 1996. Since 1981, CPJ has documented 29 cases of journalists killed in Guatemala in reprisal for their work. But according to CPJ's research, there have been no press casualties in the past two years, although journalists have certainly experienced harassment from the state and the private sector.

In El Salvador, similarly, journalism has become a much safer profession since the civil war ended, in 1992. The 12-year war claimed the lives of 24 journalists, according to CPJ's records. In the past several years, there have been few violent attacks against the press. Salvadoran reporting has also improved in this period, although most editorial pages still display a knee-jerk allegiance to the government line.

Nowhere else in Central America has the press gone through such sweeping changes as in Guatemala and El Salvador. Both countries have emerged from gruesome civil wars in which anti-Communist governments confronted a leftist challenge. Yet the two wars were in fact very different, as was their impact on journalism in both countries. In Guatemala, the war politicized the press: journalists became political actors. In El Salvador, the war had at least one positive result, in that the local press began to emerge as a more inquisitive and professional body.

Guatemala: learning from the Web

For more than three decades, the Guatemalan civil war between a strong army, supported by paramilitaries, and a weak, fragmented guerrilla movement dragged on. Most fighting took place in the highlands, where both factions tried to enlist indigenous inhabitants. Meanwhile, nationwide state repression forced virtually an entire generation of intellectuals, including journalists, into exile.

In the 1970s, the war's heightening intensity polarized the press. Journalists became involved in politics, and politicians in journalism. Even today, with the war behind them, journalists often find it difficult to shed their role as political actors. After all, the press fills a void left by the weakness of Guatemala's other political institutions. Guatemalans who fall victim to crime report it to the press, not the police; people with political complaints send letters to newspapers, not to the Congress. And even though the war is over, Guatemala is still fractured along ethnic, economic, and religious lines.

Guatemala's civil war also took a toll on future generations of journalists in terms of education. In the absence of good journalism schools, peer education in Guatemala is fundamental. But as the war's intensity heightened, editors were unable to pass along their expertise to the young reporters working for them.

After Guatemala returned to constitutional rule in 1985, the press started to get back on its feet. Vinico Cerezo, the first civilian president in 16 years, granted a limited degree of press freedom. Some new publications were forced to close, such as the weekly La Epoca, founded by Guatemalan exiles returning from Mexico. On June 10, 1988, La Epoca's offices were firebombed, presumably by right-wing paramilitary squads. But other critical publications emerged and survived during this period, notably the daily Siglo Veintiuno and the weekly Crónica. And for the first time, the guerrillas obtained media access, albeit mostly in the form of paid advertisements.

President Arzú handed over power to FRG president-elect Alfonso Portillo on January 14, 2000. Arzú gets credit for signing the final peace accord between government and rebels during his first year in office, but he has been criticized for not stemming the crime wave that has since engulfed the country. Arzú also proved highly intolerant of criticism, earning himself the royal nickname "Alvaro I."

Arzú's furious responses to negative coverage obliged the press to form a unified front against him. As a result, journalists often found it politically difficult to criticize one another. "If you tell another journalist that he made a mistake, it looks as if you're defending the government," said José Eduardo Valdizán, editor of Siglo Veintiuno.

Soon after Arzú took office, his spokesman started urging officials not to cooperate with critical publications such as elPeriódico. One former official was reprimanded after providing government information to the weekly Crónica.

Arzú also used industrialist friends in his National Advancement Party (PAN) to punish critical media by turning off advertising revenues. Guatemalan journalists have compared this to a spigot. If they print good news, money flows in. If they print bad news, the money dries up. Crónica is a case in point. In December 1998, the independent-minded magazine was sold because its advertising revenues had disappeared. Instead of trenchant political journalism, the magazine now runs more to Dilbert comic strips.

But problems with advertisers also arise without government instigation. To write that a particular brand of automobile is the one most frequently stolen is to lose that brand's advertising. As a result, editors must often balance journalistic integrity against financial need. Some editors print controversial business stories, but in a noticeably circumscribed manner. For example, a negative story about a major local company might mention the company's name only in the main story, not in the headline.

Guatemalan journalists need better education in order to learn the professional skills that will enable them to analyze current events dispassionately and in depth. The major Guatemalan universities offer journalism programs, but their quality is poor. Prior to its emasculation under new ownership, the weekly Crónica started sending its reporters to Florida International University (FIU). But the Internet really opened the eyes of Guatemalan journalists. "We've never been so exposed to the international press – to a more professional, better-finished, better-executed, more creative, more ingenious press – than now," says Juan Luis Font, elPeriódico co-editor, who formerly worked with Crónica and was trained at FIU. "We who work in the written press owe it all to the Internet."

El Salvador: correspondent courses

Salvadoran journalists didn't need the Internet to benefit from a large-scale infusion of foreign media: the war brought that to them. The Salvadoran civil war was a U.S. foreign-policy obsession because it featured a strong Marxist guerrilla movement just a few days' drive from the Texas border, as Ronald Reagan never tired of pointing out. As a result, there were many more foreign correspondents and bureaus in Salvador than in Guatemala. "Up until the Gulf War, every major paper and wire service had a bureau in El Salvador," says Washington Post reporter Colum Lynch, who was one of only a handful of foreign journalists covering the Guatemalan civil war in the late 1980s. "I worked alone, out of my apartment."

The foreign correspondents in El Salvador had money to hire local assistants, whom they taught the tricks of their trade. "The local hires reported pretty much like Americans, writing tough stories [and] breaking news," Lynch says. And whereas most fighting in Guatemala took place in remote rural areas, the Salvadoran civil war also engulfed the capital. News gathering in El Salvador was highly centralized: all the bureaus were located on the same floor of the Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador. Working in siegelike conditions, journalists developed considerable camaraderie.

Toward the end of the Salvadoran war, local universities started to expand their journalism programs. Seasoned foreign reporters were hired to teach investigative reporting, photojournalism, and the like. German correspondent Toni Keppeler and German-Italian photographer Yvonne Berardi, for example, helped beef up the journalism program at the University of Central America in San Salvador.

Although plagued by low teaching salaries, these programs have become extremely popular. There are currently thousands of journalism students in El Salvador, a considerable number for such a small country. The social impact of this phenomenon is already clear. In the past several years, reporters have started gaining more respect and cooperation from Salvadoran society – as well as higher salaries from their employers.

Journalism-school graduates brought to their jobs the U.S. perception that the role of the press is to question those in power – a big change for a press that had historically echoed the government's point of view. Over the years, this perception has made its way up the hierarchy in Salvadoran newsrooms.

Even though it folded after nine months, the weekly Primera Plana influenced journalism in El Salvador. Set up in 1994 by former guerrillas, the magazine introduced serious investigative journalism to El Salvador. "We were doing stories that [other] media wouldn't do at the time," recalls veteran El Salvador correspondent Thomas Long, an advisor to the project.

Financial and managerial difficulties eventually undermined the effort. Advertisers shied away from supporting an independent voice because they feared winding up on the receiving end of Primera Plana's aggressive reporting. No business was willing to buy advertising; the magazine was initially financed through donations.

"We were kind of doomed from the start," Long says. Even so, the weekly inspired many young Salvadoran journalists. Having observed the difficulties of launching an independent publication, they set about trying to transform existing media.

Another notable event in the emergence of a more inquisitive Salvadoran press was the arrival of Costa Rican editor Lafitte Fernández at El Diario de Hoy, one of El Salvador's two biggest dailies (La Prensa Gráfica is the other). Having worked as editor of the respected Costa Rican daily La Nación and as an instructor at Florida International University, Fernández introduced at a practical level the questioning attitude that Salvadoran journalism students were now being taught in the universities. He launched El Salvador's first serious investigative reporting, focusing on the judicial branch. La Prensa Gráfica was quick to follow suit.

One early triumph was El Diario de Hoy's investigation into the 1995 murder of Adriano Vilanova, a student whose death was held to be a suicide until the paper revealed that police had murdered him. The perpetrators were arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms of as long as 25 years. Last June, the Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal.

But today's reporters still face the same problems that stymied Primera Plana. "It's easier to write a story on a police officer involved in drug trafficking or in criminal activity than a story about a company that has damaged the environment," says Héctor Silva, deputy chief of information of La Prensa Gráfica. Because of the advertising revenues they provide, and because of media owners' interests in them, these companies are almost untouchable.

Reporters are trying to engage media owners to help change Salvadoran journalism. After Primera Plana folded, for example, a group of foreign and Salvadoran journalists decided to create the press association Contraportada (Back Page). Established in 1996, the association organizes discussion gatherings, debates, and conferences, to which it also invites local publishers. Last May, the owner of El Diario de Hoy attended a Contraportada debate on the legal framework of press freedom. His presence was significant in a country where publishers have generally preferred to fraternize with other members of the political and economic elite rather than with the journalists they employ. And publishers have been invited to join in discussions on El Salvador's first code of journalistic ethics, a project of the Association of Journalists of El Salvador, the oldest and biggest local press organization. After nine months of consultations, the code was approved on September 30.

This is not to say the owners have embraced H. L. Mencken's dictum that the attitude of a journalist to a politician should be that of a dog to a lamppost. At the ownership and higher editorial levels, Salvadoran journalism is still closely entwined with the government, which is being run by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) for the third consecutive presidential term. The current managing editor of La Prensa Gráfica was minister of education under former president Armando Calderón Sol. And President Francisco Flores, who took office on June 1, has appointed the former editor of La Prensa Gráfica, Flavio Villacorta, as chief of the intelligence service.

But despite this incestuous traffic, most journalists have difficulty accessing the corridors of power. Members of the Legislative Assembly often turn off the sound in the press cubicles when discussing sensitive issues, and judges can arbitrarily deny reporters access to files or trials for reasons of morality, public interest, or national security – a power they often use.

The road ahead

Both the Guatemalan and the Salvadoran press lack independence from advertisers and access to official information. Yet in El Salvador, a new generation of journalists has opened space for critical reporting despite the country's highly concentrated political and economic power. Readers have learned to expect a higher level of journalism. As a result, owners are slowly learning to give reporters more latitude to meet these expectations. Over time this market mechanism has allowed journalists to write more for the public and less for their employers.

But while Guatemala is at a disadvantage in terms of education, there is more political pluralism there than in El Salvador. In the "Hoy por Hoy" scandal, the opposition pressed for a government official's resignation after a media investigation suggested that he had conspired to smear journalists (as well as the opposition). At the same time, the situation of the Guatemalan press remains fluid. Now that the formerly opposition FRG is in power, local media may be less intimidated by state-led economic harassment.

However, the press needs more support if it is to transcend the partisan political role that it acquired during the war and establish itself as a fair watchdog over governments of all stripes. In order to make progress in this direction, Guatemalan journalists will need popular backing. And to generate public enthusiasm, the press will need to prove itself through objective reporting. The Salvadoran experience suggests that better reporting raises reader expectations, which in turn opens more space for independent journalism. But for this to happen in Guatemala, the country needs better and more structured opportunities for journalistic education than the Internet can provide.

Marylene Smeets is the Americas program coordinator.

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