By Yunuen AlvaradoGuatemalan Flag


Guatemala, with a population of nearly 17 million, is ranked by the Freedom House as a partly free country in terms of freedom of the press, political rights and civil liberties. In addition, according to Reporters Without Borders, Guatemala also climbed three spots to 121 out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, in comparison to their ranking of 124 out of 180 countries in 2015. The improvement of Guatemala’s ranking could be due to that there have not been as many or any murders of journalists in the recent years. It is hard to tell the future of Guatemala’s free speech and free press because while there have not been any journalists killed, activists are being silenced.

Historical Background

Freedom of speech is protected under Article 35 of Guatemala’s constitution. However, the press does have several legal restrictions. An example of this is included in article 41 of the Guatemalan constitution, which does not allow for public transmissions to be “offensive to civic values and national symbols” and programs to be “contrary to morals and good etiquette.” This legal restriction is also known as the Radio Communications Law (Freedom House).

Guatemala is a representative democracy and according to Freedom House, the government generally respects freedom of speech. Guatemala is a Central American country, bordered by several countries such as Mexico and Honduras, and the Pacific Ocean.

The country is known for its ancient ruins throughout the country, its beauty and as well as its seven active volcanoes: Santa Maria, Pacaya, Atitlan, Tajumulco, Fuego, Almolonga and Acatenango. According to Karin Suter and Sabrina Buell from Stanford University, what is now modern day Guatemala used to be part of the Maya civilization, serving as its birthplace. Most of Guatemala was then conquered by the Spanish and then became part of New Spain in the 16th century. According to the Freedom House, Guatemala’s population is currently at around 16,600,000 people, growing from 16,183,752 in 2016. The official language of Guatemala is Spanish and their official currency is the Quetzal, named after Guatemala’s national bird.

Free Speech

To begin, Guatemala has some free speech issues that involve activists, scholars and the death of journalists. As mentioned before, Guatemala is ranked by Freedom House as a partly free country and it shows.

In 1997, children’s rights activist Bruce Harris accused Susana Luarca, partner at the time of the president of Guatemala’s Supreme Court, of using her influence to push for adoptions for her foreign clients. Luarca brought criminal charges against Harris on slander, libel and defamation. In 2004, Harris was put on trial and put at risk of potentially facing eight years in prison, according to National Public Radio. According to the Organization of American States, Casa Alianza is “one of America’s largest privately funded and operated child care agency.” Harris has been an outspoken advocate for changes in Guatemala’s adoption laws. Guatemala is the number one country in the world for international adoptions. The case became international, and it was said by NPR that it “test[ed] free speech rights in Guatemala, where courts have previously limited such rights to journalists.”

The case was brought to the attention of the director of Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen. “This blatant attempt to silence a man dedicated to exposing human rights violations must not be allowed to succeed,” Allen said. Harris’s case brought great concern to Amnesty International not only because of the censorship in Guatemala, but also because Amnesty International reported that at least 18 human rights defenders from Guatemala were murdered as a form of silencing between 2000 and 2003.

However, despite Guatemala’s bloody past of violating free speech rights, Harris was acquitted on Jan. 30, 2004, and his acquittal was named as a “victory for freedom of expression” by the Human Rights Watch.

Another example of a historic free speech issue is in February of 1992 when Manuel Estuardo Peña, history professor at San Carlos University in Guatemala City, and Guatemalan Teachers’ Association director, was murdered outside of his home in Guatemala City. His close correspondents and wife were sent death threats after Peña’s murder. According to Amnesty International, Peña was known for his left-wing views and it’s highly suspected that he was murdered by government officials due to his involvement in a local project that involved people that were displaced by armed conflict. The last update about the Peña case by Amnesty International was in 1992.

A third example of a non-current free speech issue in Guatemala comes from the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2013, journalists covering issues such as crime and corruption were intimidated and subjected to violence. Under unclear circumstances, one journalist was killed that year. According to local Guatemalan freedom group CERIGUA, of attacks of the press, there were at least 54 cases of attack in 2013. There were 13 journalists murdered ranging from 2007 to 2013, according to the Agence France-Presse. At the end of October 2013, the Guatemalan government introduced a system to protect journalists under threat. The Program to Protect Journalists involves a government official taking complains of threats from journalists and monitoring threats closely in order to protect the lives of journalists.

Finally, a current issue heating up in Guatemala is the case of Daniel Pascual Hernandez, who is facing criminal charges after being accused of slander, according to Latin American news outlet TeleSur. Hernandez is an indigenous activist, well-known in his community as “a grassroots social movement leader.” Hernandez was harmed physically in 2013 by men that disagreed with his views and accused him of causing turmoil within their region. Afterwards, Hernandez accused former military officer and head of the Foundation Against Terrorism, Ricardo Mendez, of being at fault for Hernandez being assaulted. Mendez took this accusation and pursued criminal charges against Hernandez for slander. The case was accepted by a judge, which caused outrage within the activist community. Activists called this a violation on Hernandez’s freedom of speech. As of this writing, the case is still pending before a criminal court, and it is not mentioned in any article whether Hernandez is in jail or not.

Free Press

According to Freedom House, violations against freedom of the press have increased during recent years, with journalists and media organizations being threatened or subjected to violence, as well as being taken to court by the government.

In 2003, Héctor Ramírez, a reporter for Radio Sonora, suffered from a heart attack as he was being chased by a mob at a protest in Guatemala City. According to the autopsy, Ramirez was beaten severely by the protesters. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ramirez’s family filed a criminal complaint against Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, then-president of Guatemala, several ministers, and high-ranking officials from the Guatemalan Republican Front party (FRG). The protest broke out after the Supreme Court of Guatemala decided to not allow former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt to run for president. His supporters began the riot, and so Ramirez’s family not only filed a complaint against the FRG and President Cabrera, but Montt as well. They were all accused as being responsible for Ramirez’s death. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the government did not do enough to control the riots. Later, there were efforts made to try to bring Cabrera, FRG and Montt to trial as private citizens. However, there have not been any reports since then.

A second example of issues against the press is when gunmen shot Fredy Rodas, a correspondent for Radio Sonora. Rodas survived the attack, but it further affirmed the belief that Guatemalan journalists are under a huge threat of violence in the country, especially in 2013. According to reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2013, 67 percent of confirmed attacks were committed by government officials; that same year, one journalist was murdered as well, although it is not clear whether or not his assassination was linked to his profession or not.

A third example involves criminal gangs in 2012 that, according to Journalism in the Americas, “exerted the greatest censorship against Guatemalan press.” According to reports, intimidation from gangs discouraged journalists to provide “coverage of protests against extortion in the city market by criminal groups” (CERIGUA). During that same time, police did nothing to protect the abuse of journalists as they attempted to cover the arrest of Josue Domingo Culajay, ‘alleged’ leader of a gang of rapists, according to Prensa Libre. CERIGUA reported that in 2012, there were four attacks against journalists covering protests, and there was attempted bribery as well.

So far in 2017, there have been no reports of journalist deaths in Guatemala, according to Reporters Without Borders. However, on June 25, 2016, Álvaro Alfredo Aceituno López, radio journalist and director of Radio Ilusión, was murdered near his station. On his show, Lopez criticized local officials, hospitals, businesses and would broadcast the calls of listeners that shared his own view and criticized the government freely as well. Despite being an outspoken radio personality, Lopez’s family members were not made aware of any death threats that he may have received. “The murder of Álvaro Alfredo Aceituno López is likely to further chill the climate for freedom of the press in Guatemala, where lawlessness and impunity already perpetuate a cycle of violence and intimidation,” Carlos Lauria, senior program coordinator for the Americans of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said. According to the committee, research shows that most of the murders of journalists have gone without punishment.

Critical Comparison

According to Reporters Without Borders, the United States is ranked #41 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, a far cry from Guatemala’s #121 ranking. In addition, the freedom of the press in the United States is firmly marked as free, in comparison to Guatemala’s partly free.

The United States and Guatemala both have constitutions that protect the freedom of speech. However, Guatemala’s constitution also declares that only the media have the right to the “free dissemination of ideas.” In the United States, the media does not have the same clause.

The Bruce Harris case can be compared to New York Times v. Sullivan in terms that both of the cases involved claims of libel and defamation. However, because of the clause in Guatemala’s constitution about the “free dissemination of ideas,” Harris’s claims were not protected as freedom of speech, whereas in the United States, every citizen’s ideas are protected as long as they do not cause harm unto others. In the end, Harris was acquitted in Guatemala. In comparison, because the Supreme Court has seen several cases similar to Harris’s, it would most likely not have made it to the Supreme Court.

Killings of journalists seemed to be common in the past in Guatemala and that number has decreased to zero thus far in 2017. While there have been attempts to censor or exercise prior restraint on the press in the past on behalf of the government (the Pentagon Papers) in the United States, there have not been reports that journalists have been killed by the United States government because of what they have been reporting. According to reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2013, 67 percent of confirmed attacks were committed by government officials; the United States, however, does not have a rating at all, but it does have the number of prosecutions due to leaks of confidential information under the Espionage Act.

New York Times v. Sullivan is one of the key cases that really emphasized the freedom of the press. Nearly anything can be written and published and it is hard to punish people if what was written was not true, because at the end of the day, free press ties in with free speech quite strongly. It is difficult in the United States for someone to be censored because of Supreme Court rulings like these; whereas in Guatemala, although the freedom of speech is embedded within their constitution, the government itself has used intimidation tactics to prevent journalists and news organizations from reporting the truth.


Guatemala has had a shaky history with their speech and press freedoms. Journalists used to be murdered on a regular basis for daring to report on something shady that the government was doing or for speaking in opposition against government officials. It has only been until recently when the number of journalist deaths have decreased significantly. However, there is still much progress needed. While the death of Guatemalan journalists may be declining, they are still being threatened and intimidated. The United States is what people like to call the Land of the Free. However, the United States has had some issues of its own when it comes to freedom of the press and freedom of speech, as shown by the many First and Fourteenth Amendment cases the Supreme Court of the United States has taken. However, with each case, these freedoms have often been reinforced for Americans to ensure than no matter the viewpoint, everyone’s freedoms are being respected. Guatemala has a bloody, rocky history with its media, but just as it has improved until this moment, one can hope that eventually, Guatemalan journalists may be able to do their jobs without fear for their lives or the lives of their families.

(This post was last updated on April 30, 2017)

Works Cited

Amnistia Internacional. Homicidios y Desapariciones. Extrajudicial Executio: Manuel Estuardo Pena. Amnistia Internacional, 1992. Web.

“Attacks on the Press in 2013: United States.” Attacks on the Press in 2013: United States – Committee to Protect Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web.

Baets, Antoon De. Censorship of Historical Thought: A World Guide, 1945-2000. N.p.: Greenwood Group, 2002. Print.

Elton, Catherine. “Case Tests Free Speech in Guatemala.” NPR. NPR, 30 Jan. 2004. Web.

Encinias, Shahrazad Maria. “La Lucha Por Un Espacio: Guatemalan Journalists Fighting against Censorship and Violence.” 2015.

Goulden, Joseph C. “Guatemala: Terror in Silence.” (1971): n. pag. Rpt. in Nation. Vol. 212. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 365-68. Print. Ser. 12.

“Guatemala: Acquittal of Human Rights Defender a Victory for Free Expression.” Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 17 Apr. 2015. Web.

“Guatemala.” Guatemala | Country Report | Freedom in the World | 2017. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Guatemalan Activists Say Freedom of Expression Under Threat.” News | TeleSUR English. La Nueva Televisión Del Sur C.A., n.d. Web.

“Héctor Ramírez – Journalists Killed.” Journalists Killed – Committee to Protect Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web.

Lara, Tania. “Report Says Criminal Gangs to Blame for Press Censorship in Guatemala.” Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. The University of Texas at Austin, n.d. Web.

Levinson, Nan. Outspoken: Free Speech Stories. N.p.: Univ of California Pr, 2006. Print.

“Radio Journalist Murdered in Guatemala.” Committee to Protect Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web.

%d bloggers like this: