As Guatemala prepares for the enactment next month of its shiny new access to information law (PDF), local and international organizations have started to wonder if the country is actually going back to the old practice of using state advertising to punish or reward news organizations.
While working the last few months on the implementation of the new law and a series of reforms to promote transparency in public expenditure, the new Guatemalan government decided last month to stop all official advertising on print media.
The official explanation is that public expenditure is going through hard times.
However, media reports point out that all advertising money is now going to TV stations owned by Mexican businessman Angel Gonzalez, who has created a national monopoly. The reports also question why the decision to cut advertising on print media –usually more critical of the government- was announced shortly after a meeting between Gonzalez and President Alvaro Colom.
Colom has acknowledged they discussed fares, but denied having extended those TV stations’ concessions and made clear that he is willing to have such meetings with any other executive editor that so requests it.
Daily el Periodico expressed concern in an editorial piece that the country might be going back to the same tactics used by previous administrations, particularly those that ruled between 1991 and 2004.
From 1996 to 2000, President Alvaro Arzu openly tried to force critical media organizations into bankruptcy, as was the case with Chronicle magazine. Under Alfonso Portillo’s term (2000-2004), reporters faced pressure and even physical attacks.
Guatemalan print organizations have asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Press Association to intervene. The latter harshly criticized the measures and reminded President Colom of the Declaration of Chapultepec he signed last year, which states that official advertising cannot be utilized to punish or reward the media.
The Government’s response didn’t take long to come: Vicepresident Rafael Espada agreed that such use of advertising funds would be illegal but said cutting back advertising because of economic restrictions is not. He also reminded journalists at a press conference that Guatemala is “a free market”.
Meanwhile newspapers and magazines are struggling to stay financially stable, as they face the rise of new forms of media.
Free market or not, if the government is going to play a role in the future of print media at all, it certainly shouldn’t be selectively handing out favors. Not if it pretends to be consistent with its own speeches about commitment to transparency and to democratic institutions, such as a vibrant free press.
This blog previously discussed how “soft censorship” via government advertising continues to be a widespread practice across the globe to buy influence in print media, shape coverage and undermine the independence of the press. Guatemala’s government seems to be dragging the country in that direction, in what is very a sad start for its new access to information law.
— Hazel Feigenblatt