Guatemala: free press bubble bursts. JOURNALISTS UNDER FIRE

The freedom of the press that was beginning to blossom under Guatemala's two-year-old civilian government is withering. Recent attacks on the press have heightened concern in the journalism community here that several new voices will be silenced.

Guatemala has traditionally had a conservative press, owned by the wealthy families and supportive of the oligarchy. In nearly 30 years of military rule, there were only seven major news media.

But after civilian President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo took office Jan. 14, 1986, four new media outlets opened. Three - a newspaper, a magazine, and a TV broadcast station - broke away from the conservative line of the Guatemalan press in varying degrees.

``One of the great successes of the democratic process has been the growth in press freedom. That's why we decided to publish Cr'onica,'' says Richard Aitkenhead, director of Cr'onica magazine, which started publishing a year ago. But after events of the last two months, some are wondering how much democratic opening there has been.

On June 11, 15 armed men broke into the offices of the weekly newspaper La 'Epoca and set them on fire. La 'Epoca - seen as the most liberal news medium here - was begun by two Guatemalan exiles who returned from Mexico in February.

Its existence was considered evidence that the country's return to civilian democratic government had brought greater freedom for the press.

Within the past week, three of La 'Epoca's journalists have gone into exile after receiving numerous death threats.

On June 10, the offices of Acen-Siag (the Information and Analysis Service of Guatemala News Agency) were looted and bombed.

A week ago, a right-wing death squad known as ESA (the Secret Anticommunist Army) released a communiqu'e threatening ``communist'' journalists. Specifically mentioning reporters who had come back from exile, the communiqu'e said, ``We will make sure they either leave the country or die inside of it.''

On May 18, the Soviet news agency Tass was bombed. Tass set up its offices here earlier this year. The ESA claimed responsibility. Both the Tass bureau and the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina had previously received threats. After the government said it could no longer guarantee their safety, Tass reporter Alejandro Trouchine and Prensa Latina reporter Manuel Guerrero Torres left the country.

Guatemala's Attorney-General for Human Rights Gonzalo Menendez de la Riva said recent attacks on the press were human rights violations, and he criticized the government for not controlling the situation. ``There is no such democratic state that either directly or indirectly, through lack of action, silences means of communication and voices of protest,'' he said.

Observers say the violence is a reaction by the extreme right to the government's closing an ultraconservative news show as a result of a coup attempt May 11.

The Aqu'i El Mundo news show openly supported the coup attempt. Its director, Mario David Garc'ia, was one of the seven civilians charged with rebellion.

A European diplomat says there is a great difference between the closing of Aqu'i el Mundo and La 'Epoca: ``Aqu'i el Mundo was shut down the legal way, not with bombs.'' He points out that, while Garc'ia was still in Guatemala and politically active even though charged with criminal acts, three La 'Epoca reporters had to flee.

``Here, the right has complete freedom of expression. The left has a limited freedom of expression,'' the diplomat says.

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