Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution, but this right is constantly violated by government officials and politicians. Journalists and media outlets who investigate or criticise corruption and human rights violations face harassment campaigns and criminal prosecution.
In Guatemala there is a wide range of privately owned, alternative and, to a lesser extent, public media. Although there are no obstacles to the creation and operation of media, the absence of a specific regulatory body dedicated to community radio stations has often caused them to be considered illegal and be shut down. The economic crisis in recent years has encouraged the creation of independent and investigative digital media and other information platforms. Many of the leading print media have switched to online versions as a result of the political and economic persecution of independent journalism.
Guatemala has been undergoing a sociopolitical crisis for more than five years, which has resulted in an increase in attacks on journalists critical of the authorities and has had a muzzling effect on the media. Journalists who investigate corruption, human rights violations or illegal private sector practices have been subjected to social media smear campaigns, surveillance by the state, police harassment and criminalisation – all this with the acquiescence of the public prosecutor’s office and the Supreme Court of Justice. As a result of exposing cases of government corruption, the daily newspaper El Periódico has been subjected to all sorts of economic pressure and arbitrary judicial proceedings and its founder and director, José Rubén Zamora, has been jailed since mid-2022.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution and the Emission of Thought Law, which has constitutional status. In 2008, congress approved a law designed to facilitate media access to state-held information, but it has repeatedly been flouted by the authorities. Legislation that would criminalise online criticism of the state has been proposed in recent years, but these proposals have yet to be debated in congress. At the same time, journalists have increasingly been subjected to censorship via the courts. Although only three journalists are imprisoned, it is feared the number could increase as judicial harassment is on the rise.
The economic situation and fall in advertising revenue have forced many newsrooms to make major staff cuts and to favor online content, some of which is behind a paywall. The pandemic has only worsened the situation, leading to the disappearance of the paper version of La Hora, which now exists only in a digital format. The persecution of the founder of El Periódico has forced the newspaper to lay off many of its employees and to stop producing a print version.
Although vilified by the authorities, journalists are widely trusted by the public, above all because of their investigative reporting. However, some media outlets and journalists have experienced a fall in credibility due either to their support for the government or to their editorial line on women's rights, sexual diversity and human rights in general. Media coverage is increasingly restricted, especially in some public spaces where critical journalists are denied access.
The safety of journalists has deteriorated in recent years, and there are no public policies to ensure their protection. They are, most often, victims of smear campaigns, police harassment, and verbal and physical aggression. At least five journalists are in exile, and many live mainly abroad, fearing for their lives and those of their families. Orlando Villanueva, the editor of the Noticias del Puerto news website, was murdered in March 2022. It is feared that the general elections scheduled for 2023 could, as is often the case, lead to an increase in violence against journalists.