Guatemalan Press Withstands Throwback to Dictatorship: Although the Independent Press Is Back on Track, the Seven-Day Return to Press Repression Has Left Some Scars

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Although the independent press is back on track, the seven-day return to press repression has left some scars

For seven tense days in May, it appeared that Guatemala's nascent press freedom would be strangled in its cradle when President Jorge Serrano partially suspended the constitution and assumed dictatorial powers, including press censorship.

However, the country's young democracy emerged from the week-long crisis essentially intact when Serrano was overthrown June 1 and eventually replaced with a longtime human rights champion, Ramiro de Leon Carpio.

Although the independent press is back on track in this Tennessee-sized nation that has enjoyed only 17 years of press freedom in its 172 years of independence, the seven-day throwback to the old days of strongman rule and press repression has left its scars on the Guatemalan press establishment.

Perhaps the most visible scar is the resignation of 45-year-old Mario Antonio Sandoval as director of the country's leading daily, Prensa Libre, after the paper's management agreed to impose self-censorship, two days after Serrano suspended the constitution, rather than to submit to government censorship.

Sandoval had attempted to face down the censors and vehemently opposed self-censorship.

De Leon has appointed Sandoval his director of information, effectively ending his 27-year career on the newspaper co-founded by his father.

"My conscience is tranquil," the veteran newsman said in a telephone interview after confirming his appointment with de Leon June 24. "I can't say I'm very happy because I belong to the other side of the fence. Now I'm going to be getting the kicking instead of doing the kicking.

"You can be an ethical journalist and work for the government," Sandoval added. "I look on it as a challenge. I'm going to check the complaints I've had for so many years of the bureaucracy to see if they're real."

He said de Leon was "a good friend of mine for several years" who participated in demonstrations against Serrano's suspension of constitutional guarantees, including press freedom.

In his new post, Sandoval will be responsible for the government-owned newspaper, Diario de Centroamerica, its Channel 5 television station and its radio station, TGW

After the suspension of constitutional rule and the imposition of censorship May 25, Guatemala's four fiercely competitive independent dailies found common cause in resisting, each in its own way.

Like Prensa Libre, the country's second-ranking daily, El Grafico, resumed publication under self-censorship the day after Serrano's government forcibly blocked distribution of the four independent dailies. But in its first self-censored issue, El Grafico carried a front-page protest against the censorship, and on its op-ed page, it ran only the titles of its regular columns with blank space underneath.

The third morning daily, Siglo Veintiuno, and the country's only evening paper, La Hora, refused to publish until May 31 to protest the government's actions. When Siglo Veintiuno, which means 21st Century in Spanish, resumed publication, it was with a new masthead: Siglo Catorce - Era de Oscurantismo, meaning 14th Century - The Dark Ages.

Guatemala's independent radio and television stations also were subjected to censorship. All the radio stations were required to play marimba music in place of news programs. Television news was censored and Channel 11 went to black when the crystal was removed from its antenna. Two wire services, Mexico's Notimex and Spain's Efe, reported difficulty in transmitting news.

Serrano, who was Guatemala's second democratically elected civilian president after 32 years of military-dominated governments, suspended constitutional guarantees, dissolved the congress and the supreme court and placed its leaders under house arrest, and announced that he would rule by decree until the convening of an assembly to draft a new constitution. …