OF THOUGHT AND EXPRESSION1
As indicated in Chapter I of this report, the Fundamental Statute of
provides for freedom to express thought by any means of dissemination, without
prior censorship, except for the limitations stipulated by law.3
The Fundamental Statute also states that the correspondence, private
documents and books of any person are inviolable.4
Legal Restrictions on this Right
By Decree Law 45-82, which declared a state of siege throughout the
national territory, this right was temporarily suspended until the state of
siege was terminated on March 23, 1983, although it should be indicated that in
practice what was involved was more a matter of restrictions and limitations on
the exercise of this right.5
The restrictions were reinstituted subsequently when civil liberties were
suspended on June 29, 1983 and this situation prevailed until the fall of
General Ríos Montt’s Government.
Article 14 of the above-mentioned decree stipulated that “organs of
publicity are required to refrain from publishing anything that might cause
confusion or panic or aggravate the situation. Consequently, they are prohibited
from publishing any information by seditious groups.”
Likewise, Article 17 provided that “all public relations services of
government ministries and all publications dealing with the current emergency
are centralized in the Public Relations Department of the Office of the
President of the Republic, which shall be the only source of information during
the period this decree is in force.”
As a result of Decree Law 45-82 and during the time it was in force,
Decree 9 of the Constituent Assembly issued on April 28, 1966, or the Law on
Expression of Thought, was suspended, in the Commission’s view.6
This law states that expression of thought is free in any form and in no case
may a bond or condition be required for such expression, nor shall it be subject
to prior censorship. Freedom of information is unrestricted, and journalists
shall have access to all sources of information. The Commission understands that
when the state of siege is lifted, this law will again take effect.
The 1965 Law of Public Order,7
provides that all decrees restricting guarantees must be immediately and widely
published by all mass media, as must any other information concerning the
emergency. In addition, publicity organs, whatever the means of dissemination
they employ, are obligated to publish free of charge in their first edition,
decrees, provisions and information on the subject involved, as soon as they are
issued. If it does not do so, the publication will be subject to a fine.
Article 35 of the above-mentioned law provides that during the state of
emergency, the news media is prohibited from publishing anything that might
cause confusion or panic or aggravate the situation in such cases, and if they
make tendentious comments on the circumstances, the director shall be warned by
the appropriate authority. If he does so again, prior censorship may be imposed.
Government Decision 75-82 provides for government control of radio and
television stations, which shall be exercised by the General Department of
National Radio and Television Broadcasting.
Freedom of Thought and Expression in Practice
According to information received by the Commission during its on-site
visit, when the Government of General Ríos Montt came to power, tensions in the
communications media declined substantially regarding the conduct of their
professional activities, particularly in news broadcasts. For example,
editorials were published in the main newspapers analyzing the origins and
causes of the country’s social, economic and cultural problems, and
constructive criticisms and comments were published on the general human rights
The climate of terror reported by the Commission in its previous report
began to disappear, which confirms the fact that the Commission has not received
reports about murders, disappearances, detention or abuses of information media
representatives as frequently as before. In this connection, the IACHR received
testimony from various sources confirming that the extent of violence and in
general the personal attacks in this sector had declined considerably.
However, beginning in July 1982, following the imposition of the state of
siege, journalists were compelled to exercise their profession with caution and
to follow strictly the legal provisions set forth in the general considerations
of this chapter. Not only was the censorship provided for in Decree Law 45-82
fully in force, but also the practice of self-censorship had again returned,
which is understandable given how journalists have been conditioned by the
insecurity of their work in recent years.
The Commission believes that this behavior can to some extent be
attributed to the vague and imprecise wording of the restrictive rules in Decree
Law 45-82. Phrases like that of Article 14 of the decree, which imposes on
information organs the obligation to refrain from publications that “may cause
confusion or panic or aggravate the situation,” can be subject to such broad
interpretation that they have clearly had an intimidating effect on the press.
In this regard, representatives of the mass media interviewed by the
Commission agreed that the Government does not exercise censorship expressly,
but that journalists must practice self-censorship in the face of the threat
from pressure groups and the Government itself, and also, that they felt it was
of fundamental importance to establish the extent to which journalists are
victimized merely for expressing their own opinions or to what extent the
Government interprets their writing and confuses them with those of subversive
The Commission found during its visit to Guatemala that there was a
climate of fear affecting persons working in the information media. When asked
for their off-the-record opinion on this, almost all of the journalists covering
the Commission’s visit refused to comment, but the few who did confirmed that
self-censorship is the modus operandi for surviving.
In addition, leaders of the educational sector,9
unions and professional associations in the labor sector and political parties
also noted restrictions on this right. Representatives of political groups
affirmed that they encounter severe restrictions on their right to express
political opinions, and also that their fear has recently increased as a result
of the public warnings by high government officials.10
Religious authorities that have visited the Commission in small numbers or that
have been interviewed by it corroborate this feeling of fear ant threat.
Finally, it must be stressed that most of the detainees brought before
the Special Courts were accused, among other offenses, of distributing or
possessing subversive material. The ambiguity and vague definition of this
offense, together with the secrecy of the judicial proceedings conducted by the
Special Courts, also constituted a serious limitation on the exercise of freedom
of expression and opinion, because it was impossible to determine what type of
printed material the accused persons had and whether it was actually subversive.
The Commission feels that this right is affected in practice by the
limitations noted and by the prevailing climate of terror and threat, which
inhibits journalists and other sectors of the Guatemalan society from expressing
themselves freely and properly performing their respective social functions.
Control of the mass media gave the Government of General Ríos Montt full
authority to conduct its anti-guerrilla activities without public opinion being
able to comment on it, much less debate or criticize specific measures. Under
such circumstances, there can be no genuine freedom of expression, nor can
Guatemalans be fully informed about the news and important topics on the
national and international scene, all of which, as the Commission has repeatedly
stated, contributes to the failure to respect other human rights. The Commission
hopes that when the state of siege is lifted there will be a return to a climate
suitable for the full exercise of this right.
American Convention on Human
Rights: Article 13. Article 13. Freedom of Thought and Expression. 1.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right
includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all
kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the
form of art, or through any other medium of one's choice. 2. The exercise of
the right provided for in the foregoing paragraph shall not be subject to
prior censorship but shall be subject to subsequent imposition of liability,
which shall be expressly established by law to the extent necessary to
ensure: a. respect for the rights or reputations of others; or b. the
protection of national security, public order, or public health or morals.
3. The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or
means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint,
radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the dissemination of
information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and
circulation of ideas and opinions. 4. Notwithstanding the provisions of
paragraph 2 above, public entertainments may be subject by law to prior
censorship for the sole purpose of regulating access to them for the moral
protection of childhood and adolescence. 5. Any propaganda for war and any
advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitute
incitements to lawless violence or to any other similar action against any
person or group of persons on any grounds including those of race, color,
religion, language, or national origin shall be considered as offenses
punishable by law.
Article 7 of the Fundamental Statute.
The political constitution that was in force up to May 1982
guaranteed this right in the same terms but indicated that anyone who abused
this right by failure to respect private life and morals would be liable
before the law. Moreover, no one could be persecuted or molested for any
opinion or act that did not violate the law. (Articles 45 and 65 of the
repealed Political Constitution).
Article 8 of the Fundamental Statute.
Article 2 of Decree Law 45-82.
Under that law, the director, chief editor or legal representative of
organs of publicity are responsible for representing such organs before
courts of justice and government authorities for acts covered by the law.
Radio and television news companies shall enjoy the benefits of the law on
industrial promotion provided they comply with the requirements stipulated
in that law. In addition, the Law on Expression of Thought states that no
one may be persecuted or molested for his opinions. However, those who fail
to respect private life or morals or commit crimes and offenses legally
punishable shall be legally liable. In this connection, the law provides
that publications abusing freedom of expression or thought may be subject to
a jury trial or punishment in the following cases: a) printed material that
involves treason to the country; b) printed material that this law considers
subversive; c) printed material that is damaging to morals; d) printed
material that fails to respect private life; and e) printed material
containing slander or libel.
that law, an attack on public officials or employees for purely official
acts in the performance of their duties even when they have left their posts
at the time accusations are made against them does not constitute slander or
libel. Newspapers are required to publish clarifications, rectifications,
explanations or refutations sent to them by any natural or corporate person
to whom inexact facts are attributed, or against whom accusations are made
or who are directly or personally alluded to in any manner. Crimes and
misconduct in expressing thought by the mass media shall be judged solely by
a jury, which shall declare in each case to the best of its knowledge and
understanding, whether the act constitutes a crime or misdemeanor. When any
person takes offense at the contents of a printed publication, he may file
suit in writing with the court of first instance having jurisdiction over
the domicile of the publisher assumed to be responsible. The document filed
with the court must meet specified requirements. In the case of an
acquittal, the court shall dismiss the case in the same session at which the
verdict is rendered, and shall impose penalties at the same session. The
court’s decision may be appealed within the following 48 hours, and the
convicted person may be released on bail or under his own cognizance, at the
discretion of the judge. If an appeal has been filed and heard, the decision
of the court of appeals, against which there shall be no recourse whatever,
shall be confined to the sentence imposed by the trial judge, and shall not
consider or modify the verdict of the jury. In cases of attacks or
denunciations against government officials or employees for purely official
acts connected with the performance of their duties, a court of honor may
try the case at the request of the interested party. Decisions of this court
may not be contested, and the publicity organ ordered by the court to
publish it shall do so without preceding it or adding to it any comment,
although if so desired, a separate article may apologize or give
explanations to the offended party.
Article 34 of the Law of Public Order.
OAS/Ser.L/V/II.53, pages 87 and 89.
While it is true that the number of attacks against professors,
university leaders and employees of educational centers has declined
considerably, the Commission received in Guatemala a list of persons
connected with this sector who were kidnapped following the coup d’etat.
The following article, for example, appeared in La Prensa Libre
of Guatemala on January 15, 1983: MÉNDEZ RUIZ REITERATES THE PROHIBITIONS
ON MAKING POLITICAL STATEMENTS. The Minister of the Interior, Colonel
Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, yesterday repeated the warning to political parties to
refrain from making political statements, otherwise further measures may be
Méndez was asked by Prensa Libre about the possible abolition of
political parties operating before the coup d’etat, such as for
example, the PR, PID, FUN, MLN, DC, FUR, CAN, PNR and committees on behalf
of parties. He pointed out that abolition of these parties is still under
study and nothing specific has been decided to date. However, he said that
these groups are prohibited from making statements because the country is in
a state of emergency. If, despite the restrictions that have been placed on
them for some months, these parties continue to act or make statements
through the mass media, that might “precipitate their abolition,” or
other steps might be taken.
President Ríos Montt recently stated to the press that abolition of political parties would be desirable, and that that decision “is under study.”