Guatemalan Media, Government Share Tentative Truce


FUNERAL bouquets are no longer arriving at the home of Jose Ruben Zamora, president of the daily newspaper Siglo XXI. Bomb attacks on his associates have stopped. Scolding calls from Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano Elias have ended. Mr. Zamora's shadow, a car with tinted windows and no license plates, has not been seen for a couple of months.

"The situation is measurably better now," he concludes. But for most of the last 12 months Guatemalan journalists have been under siege.

"Death threats, physical attacks by armed bullies, burning of newspapers, dynamite attacks on journalistic installations, and attacks on homes of press individuals are carried out with complete impunity," said the Inter-American Press Association in a March 24 statement.

The Toronto-based Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists cites 50 attacks against Guatemalan journalists in 1992. Given the estimated 350 journalists in Guatemala, the report calls this "perhaps the greatest concentration of threats and attacks that exists in any single country of the world."

Guatemalan journalists operate in a country ravaged by more than three decades of civil war. On May 8, the latest round of peace talks between leftist guerrillas and the government broke off with no progress and no date for further talks. Although democratic elections have been held since 1986, the military remains the nation's most powerful institution, and, according to human rights groups, responsible for the majority of human rights violations. President Serrano claims local and international human r ights groups distort the problem.

Serrano once called the news media "the music of democracy," but from early in his administration, the discordant notes coming from Siglo XXI and the other news media were not the kind of "music" Serrano wanted to hear.

Siglo XXI was launched shortly before Serrano took office in 1991 to "test the limits of this new democracy," Zamora says, by tackling government corruption, illegal drug trafficking, and human rights abuses.

"It really began heating up between the government and the local press last year," says George Rodriguez, president of the Guatemala Foreign Press Club. Serrano told editors he and his family were off limits. The military, security forces, and political groups also made their feelings about critical press coverage felt.

A series of incidents brought the issue to a head in December:

* Dec. 2 - Siglo XXI reporter Omar Cano was beaten while investigating illegal lumbering on government lands. Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman Ramiro De Leon ruled the military was partially responsible.

* Dec. 13 - At a military ceremony, Serrano announced: "We cannot continue to tolerate insults and a lack of respect for authority from the media."

* Dec. 18 - A journalist and professor was shot and seriously wounded, allegedly by members of the Presidential Guard.

* Dec. 21 - A bomb exploded in the offices of the Association of Guatemalan Journalists.

* Dec. 31 - A fire was set at the printing plant of Tinamit Magazine, which has been critical of the armed forces.

A committee for the defense of Guatemalan journalists' rights was formed in December. Journalists began boycotting coverage of the president. In January, Serrano called a truce, publicly apologizing for the "misunderstanding" that had developed between himself and the press.

But the truce is an uneasy one.

Mr. Cano fled the country in February after receiving death threats. In March, an anonymous group published a "death list" threatening the lives of 24 people, including 10 journalists.

Mr. Rodriquez concludes: "It's quieted down now. But you never know here."

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