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Democracy Backslides When A Free Press is Considered an Enemy of the People

Sofia Menchu is a Guatemalan journalist and reporter for Reuters. She discusses challenges to freedom of the press in her home country, Guatemala, and calls upon her government and other Central American governments to respect freedom of expression.

Interview with Sofia Menchu March 22, 2022 //   11 minute read

Sofia Menchu is a Guatemalan journalist and reporter for Reuters. She was awarded a first place National Press Prize  in 2015 and 2016 for her reporting work. Menchu collaborates with No-Ficción, a digital media organization in Guatemala, and also works as local television producer for international media. She is a member of the Central America Prosperity Project (CAPP) at the George W. Bush Institute.

Menchu spoke about challenges to free expression in Central America with Jenny Villatoro, an Associate for the George W. Bush Institute - SMU Economic Growth Initiative; Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute; Chris Walsh, Deputy Director of the Human Freedom and Women’s Initiatives at the Bush Institute; and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute. She detailed the situation in her home country, Guatemala, while explaining how a free flow of information is essential to a democracy. The respected journalist also called upon her government and other Central American governments to heed the international community’s call to respect freedom of expression.

How do you define freedom of expression?

Every person has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right is about the freedom to search for and receive information and ideas without any restriction. For journalists, this means having the ability to investigate and publish about every topic. It means having the freedom to publish and discover information about the government, politicians, businessmen, or anything or anyone else without it being a risk. Guaranteeing and respecting this freedom of speech is an important part of democracy.

What does freedom of expression mean to you personally and to your work?

It’s very important that I have the freedom to publish and to discover information about any topic. The people have a right to the real information about different topics. The government should guarantee this right. It’s very important in journalism.

The Committee to Protect Journalists recently warned about threats to press freedom in Latin America. Can you talk about how government authorities pressure reporters, journalists, artists, academics, politicians, and others as a way to limit their freedom of expression? Are there certain tools they use?

Since 2016, social media has been the main channel used by opponents to attack journalists and human rights activists. These attacks are made by bots and ghost accounts or profiles. Many of these accounts have been linked to government workers or conservative radical groups that are against the fight against corruption.

Every journalist, activist, or societal leader that writes or publishes anything against the government or politicians accused of corruption is considered an enemy.

After all, the journalists publish information that the politicians don't want shared. In Guatemala, we have examples of the media being attacked:  [journalists] Sonny Figueroa and Juan Luis Font, José Rubén Zamora of El Periodico and Emisoras Unidas, a news radio station. In 2021, ex-officials sued Figueroa and a colleague under Guatemala’s violence against women law for reporting on an ex-official’s finances. Font has a case involving possibly laundered money. In the meantime, the Ministerio Publico, or public minister, has investigated El Periodico, La Hora and Emisoras Unidas.

The government is the main attacker of journalists. The Guatemalan government uses the Ministerio Publico to attack journalists in different cases. We have had many examples in Guatemala during the last year.

To what extent do these moves by government officials pressure journalists to censor themselves in what they report and write?

One of the strongest ways to attack journalists is the recent abuse of lawsuits against journalists. It is something that has become widely used in the last year and resembles a bit of what is happening in Nicaragua or El Salvador.

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Another way is for companies to withdraw commercial advertising from large media outlets to force them to reduce staff. And there are attacks on social networks where they sometimes publish family photos of journalists to intimidate them.

Also, the president has not given press conferences for many months and in Congress they ask for the list of questions beforehand to see if they are pertinent. In other instances, the government has limited journalists’ ability to cover press conferences. The president and other officials serve only friendly media and not the rest of the press.

How, then, can citizens gain access to reliable information?

It is a commitment on the part of journalists that, even though there are these attacks, we will continue to work to investigate and discover things that the government, politicians, and businessmen try to hide.

Apart from the traditional media, in recent years many digital news media and programs have emerged. They try to monitor the government and report on the main problems of the country.

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What the government does to censor them is to bring back lawsuits that it made years ago, as in the cases mentioned before. Even though that's happening, journalists continue to publish important investigations against corruption. Sometimes they create media alliances to support each other.

What is the impact on societies if people lack sufficient access to reliable information?

The people would stop knowing the important things that are happening that violate democracy. They would be ignorant of what is happening. It would be a big problem for the society if journalists are censored and they stop publishing and telling what is going on in the government.

Right now, despite the efforts by the media organizations to inform society, a large part of Guatemalans don't know or understand the actual implications of the regression of justice and the democratic backsliding that we are experiencing in Guatemala. If the media stopped publishing, the problem would be even worse.

It would be a big problem for the society if journalists are censored and they stop publishing and telling what is going on in the government.

For the people of Guatemala, that would be a step back for justice and democracy. There would be consequences for that retreat.

How does the pressure on the press impact the governance of your country and others in Central America?

The pressure strengthens the criminal structures, reinforces that corruption and impunity will continue, and adds to the backsliding of democracy that we are experiencing not just in Guatemala but in many countries in Central America.

Since 2018, when the head of  Cicig [the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala] was expelled from Guatemala, all the criminal groups have co-opted and controlled the justice system. That is another step back for democracy.

Attacks on the press continue to grow because these criminal groups are now in the government, more strongly than after the head of Cicig was removed. Every  journalist, activist, or societal leader that writes or publishes anything against the government or politicians accused of corruption is considered an enemy.

The government considers you a bad person if you investigate anything, or if you write anything that can be seen as against them or about any politician in a particular party for corruption. Immediately, you are the enemy.

How should democracies respond to the pressure on free speech?

The governments should reflect and think about the importance free speech has for democracy and society. Moreover, they should consider and understand the recommendations by international organizations and the international community that have called for the government to respect the right of expression.

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Now, in this scenario that we are living, more Latin American presidents seem to repeat the same rhetoric against the press and attacking journalists personally. It seems like they don't want to reflect on the freedom of expression, and they don't want the press to have that freedom.

Is there something that you would like the administration here in the United States to do, or in other democratic countries, to help support journalists throughout Latin America? Is there anything specific they could do to help this year?

It’s very important for journalists to have the support of international governments  and organizations so they can feel safe and supported. They can help us have freedom of speech.

In 2013, I was threatened because of articles I had written about a prisoner that was found outside of jail, the attack came directly from an ex-minister of the government. I made the lawsuit, and the case went in front of a judge and the ex-minister was found guilty.

This was one of the first cases taken up by a court. In this situation I had the support of Cicig, the United Nations Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, and embassies of other governments. For that reason, I say international support is very important so that journalists can defend themselves and keep on despite these attacks.

The pressure strengthens the criminal structures, reinforces that corruption and impunity will continue, and adds to the backsliding of democracy that we are experiencing not just in Guatemala but in many countries in Central America.

For example, Sonny Figueroa and a colleague of his were exiled from Guatemala for three-to-four months during the last year. They were in Costa Rica, but they had the support of local human rights organizations.

In Guatemala, the government started an initiative to create a tool for protection of journalists. I participated in the drafting of the document. But nothing was ever realized. That's why it's important to have protection for journalists and safety protocols for how to respond to these kinds of attacks.

How do most people get news and information in Guatemala?

There are different audiences, including on social media. Most of the information online is free. The majority of the newspapers have free digital content.

But the problem with Guatemala is we have a lot of illiteracy. That is a barrier to accessing information. It's not so much that the information is expensive, but that it's not a priority. There is a lot of poverty, and the people have other priorities and issues.

There is also information on radio and television, but the open television news network in the country is allied with the ruling party.