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Long Live Free Thinking in Guatemala

Plaza Pública Editorial Board

 
 

In recent days, certain events have transpired that have left many people wondering about the state of freedom of expression in Guatemala—and when we say “recent days,” we’re specifically referring to the last two centuries.

And we could go back even further.

The project of Guatemalan Independence was not only designed to preserve the political and economic privileges of local elites and to protect the status quo; it was also an attempt to contain the advance of liberal values.

In a sense, as journalist and freedom of information expert Silvio Gramajo explains in his doctoral thesis, the same could also be said of the country’s transition to democracy. Here we might say that democracy, to paraphrase sociologist Edelberto Torres Rivas, was born from the barrel of a gun. Regime change came twelve years before the signing of the peace accords, in 1996, and laid the groundwork for the country’s facade of legality: the constitution said one thing; the daily exercise of power, another. The logic of the military governments seeped into the new order, cemented into it. We had the hardware of a democracy, wrote former diplomat and peacebuilding expert Bernardo Arévalo, but the software of authoritarianism.

And it’s the same we’re left with today.

And beating steadily along in the background, as if immutably: the willingness to appropriate public funds or use them for personal benefit. The money of the state, its goods, its services, its land and the resources that lie below (like water, minerals, metals) or above (like radio frequencies), the laws, the police, the army, the symbols—everything.

It’s what we call patrimonialism.

And always the desire to cover everything up—cover up information, cover up corruption, cover up questions—with the flag.

And: to cover the mouth. To impose silence.

Which is another way of imposing Truth—whatever truth they choose.

Which is a way of making it easier to plunder and dominate.

 

There have been some recent advances in challenging all of this—more in the country’s hardware than in it’s software. Guatecompras, for example. Or transparency legislation that supports public access to government records, like the Law of Access to Information. And although past administrations have all sailed in the same sea—some floating a little higher, others a little lower—not all governments have been the same, nor all legislatures. (At least not the leadership; bureaucracy drifts along its own course and bobs to its own rhythm).

On Tuesday, the Día de la Independencia, President Giammattei warned that the right to freedom of expression has limits. It is limited, he said, by the Truth—which is not true. It was another way of saying, “watch what you say, be careful what you publish.” If what Giammattei is insinuating were true, then literature, cinema, painting, or making mistakes would all be forbidden. If it were true, then debate—one of our oldest methods of generating knowledge and understanding—would be forbidden.

The limits imposed on freedom of expression, along with the accompanying mechanisms of judgement and sanction, are, in fact, described in various national and international laws: laws on slander, injury and insult, some related to public order and health. Truth, however, is not one of them. Truth is an aspiration and an ideal, not a prerequisite for self-expression. Every expression is an approximation, and therefore an imprecision.

As the association of Jesuit universities in Latin American known as AUSJAL explains in a recent publication, “the approach to truth is always asymptotic: we come closer and closer to it, but never grasp it completely.” Science teaches us that even our best explanations of the temporal world are always provisional. In 1984, Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia, there is a Ministry of Truth. Its mission is to make facts and media reports conform to the doctrine and propaganda of the Party—to conform to the official Truth. 

Accepting Giammattei’s assertion would mean inadvertently agreeing to sacrifice our investigative and analytical independence to a Ministry of Truth that inevitably reflects the imperatives of the state and designates not only what is True, but also what is Good and Desirable. This form of government, in which the state decrees the legitimate aims and objectives of its citizens, is called totalitarianism.

If we are being generous, we might think of the president’s statement as little more than a slip of the tongue, even though he said it during one of his most significant speeches of the year. But there are two problems with that interpretation.

The first is that, despite having enjoyed many months of generous treatment by the press, since the beginning of his campaign, neither Giammattei nor his team have stopped signaling their uneasiness with, and even contempt for, the freedom of information.

The second is that instead of using his public addresses to offer probing reflections or relieve any suspicions regarding the repression of investigative journalists—accusations that have been hanging heavily over his administration for the last two weeks—the president’s words have only reinforced such suspicions.

Only three days before Giammattei’s speech, a judge released journalist Sonny Figueroa for lack of evidence against him. Figueroa had been arrested under unclear circumstances and had suffered illegal treatment and intimidation by the police in the hours following his detention. On multiple occasions, Giammattei had expressed disdain toward Figouera and annoyance at his work as a reporter, and his arrest triggered fear and concern across the country.

At the time of Giammattei’s speech, not even a week had passed since Miguel Martínez, the president’s most trusted man and a kind of super-minister at the head of the Centro de Gobierno, had declared with great stridency, in an announcement echoed by the entire official propaganda apparatus, including the media, that he would be denouncing Plaza Pública for extorting, threatening, and harassing his family—serious crimes that he claims to have also suffered in the past.

We sympathize with Martínez for any threats his family may have suffered before, and at the same time, we must express our concern at the accusations he has leveled against our team at Plaza Pública. There is an immense gap between what Martínez alleges and the actual conduct of our reporters: not only did no one at Plaza Pública extort, threaten, or harass his family, but to our knowledge, no member of our team has had any contact with his family at all.

For almost a decade, our work has been known for adhering to the highest ethical standards of the profession, and for its great meticulousness and commitment to clearly defined public research protocols, to the point that despite our many exclusive revelations, our reporting has never served as the basis for a lawsuit.

This is the work we will continue to do, with freedom of movement and independence of thought, sidestepping this country’s authoritarian snares and protected by its democratic hardware, which impels us to monitor and investigate the motives and actions of those in power, and in particular those who serve as public officials and representatives of the citizenry.


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