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Media : Press Freedom Carries a Price in Guatemala : Upstart newspaper is raided after it takes on once-taboo subjects. Editors report death threats.

March 16, 1993|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUATEMALA CITY — The armed men arrived in the middle of the night, sweeping simultaneously into seven distribution centers of the feisty Guatemalan newspaper Siglo Veintiuno (Century 21).

By the time they had finished, the men had burned thousands of copies of the next day's edition and terrified vendors who peddle the paper on Guatemala's street corners.

The well-organized vandalism in January was but one of a series of attacks suffered by journalists and their media outlets in recent months in Guatemala. At the same time, government officials--including President Jorge Serrano--have been especially critical of the press.

Many reporters say the escalating tension, and the violence, respond to a new, more aggressive kind of journalism that the media are increasingly practicing in Guatemala. And the best example is Siglo Veintiuno, an upstart publication that began three years ago and now is the newspaper of choice for those seeking an independent version of events in a country where civil war simmers and the right-wing military still wields enormous power.

In the last year especially, Siglo Veintiuno took on once-taboo subjects ranging from army human rights abuses to government corruption and official complicity in drug-trafficking. And as a result, the paper's editors contend, they've received death threats, and two reporters have been physically assaulted on the job. A funeral wreath was sent anonymously to the home of one Siglo Veintiuno editor.

"The truth is that in a society as polarized as ours is, it is difficult to understand the kind of independent journalism that we do," said Siglo Veintiuno executive Haroldo Sanchez. "You get labeled . . . (and) you can make an enemy from any sector."

During 30 years of civil war between the army and leftist guerrillas, scores of Guatemalan journalists were killed, often by right-wing death squads. The violence peaked in the early 1980s, but the more recent threats have dredged up fears of a return to the past.

Like most newspapers and television and radio stations in Latin America, Siglo Veintiuno is owned by a group of wealthy families. Several of the tabloid's top editors, however, are young journalists with new ideas about how to practice their profession, Sanchez, 40, said.

And one of those ideas is to test the limits as Guatemala moves gradually toward a more open democracy. Since 1986, two civilian presidents have been elected, ending decades of military dictatorship, although the influence of the country's army generals remains strong.

Siglo Veintiuno editors say they have two goals: to point out what they consider the errors of the Serrano government, and to open the pages of the paper to voices that might normally be excluded from the traditionally pro-government press.

Leaders of the guerrilla front, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit, for example, have been allowed to publish opinion columns, as have union activists.

The paper reported extensively on efforts leading up to the awarding of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize to Guatemalan Indian-rights advocate Rigoberta Menchu. Menchu, self-exiled to Mexico after her family was killed in the civil war, is a frequent critic of the government, and army leaders opposed her nomination.

About six months ago, Siglo Veintiuno added a biweekly supplement published in several native Indian languages--a first, despite Guatemala's Mayan majority.

In a special section published just over a year ago, Siglo Veintiuno also tackled the delicate issue of drug-trafficking and the alleged participation of Guatemalan officials. It gave a detailed account of the production of heroin in Guatemala and described the case of an army colonel caught red-handed by U.S. drug agents but who continued to elude arrest even as he was tried in absentia in a Florida court. The article strongly suggested that officials chose to look the other way rather than detain a well-connected military man.

The newspaper readily admits it has committed excesses.

One was a feature published under the byline of a fictional character called Guicho Cantoral. Started as a gossip column, the weekly feature eventually came to include baseless rumors that undermined the newspaper's credibility, Sanchez said. The column has been discontinued.

Sanchez defended the paper's coverage of a Univision Television report that President Serrano had visited a topless bar in New York--news that exploded into a scandal in Guatemala. Rather than sensationalize the story, Sanchez said, the tabloid published an account of Serrano's denial, paired with an account of what Univision reported.

True. But on Siglo Veintiuno's editorial page that day, a cartoon depicted a drooling, sweating Serrano as he ogled a buxom, nearly naked woman. (Serrano, for the record, later said he entered the club by mistake and departed after he realized the type of establishment it was.)

Siglo Veintiuno journalists are not alone in facing pressures and attacks.

Assailants last month torched the print shop of a weekly center-left magazine, Tinamit; months earlier, the magazine's headquarters were the target of a grenade. Reporters from the daily Prensa Libre and from several radio stations have received death threats and warnings to cease investigating high-profile human rights cases.

Omar Cano, a reporter for Siglo Veintiuno, was badly beaten in December when he traveled to Guatemala's northern Peten region to report on the illegal and lucrative logging of precious hardwoods, an industry in which the military has been implicated. Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman Ramiro de Leon later ruled that army commanders were responsible for the beating. It was the edition of Siglo Veintiuno reporting De Leon's findings that was destroyed in the January raid on the newspaper's distribution centers.

An army spokesman denied involvement in either the beating or the illegal logging.

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