Guatemalan Journalist Attacked and Arrested while Covering Land Dispute

A police officer mans a checkpoint during the first day of a system limiting the days that vehicles can go out as a way to curb the spread of COVID-19, ordered by the government for the metropolitan area of Guatemala City, Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

HAVANA TIMES – Guatemalan authorities should immediately release journalist Francisco Chox and open a thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his arrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On June 11, a group of protesters in the municipality of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, in Sololá department, detained Chox while he was covering a demonstration over a territorial dispute, according to Erwin Juárez, director of Nim TV, the local broadcaster for which Chox was freelancing at the time, who spoke with CPJ via phone.

Johanna Rodríguez, a Nim TV producer, told CPJ via phone that the protesters beat up Chox, giving him broken ribs and bruises on his face, legs, and arms. She said the protesters then put ammunition in his bag and presented him to police, who arrested him for unlawfully possessing ammunition.

Chox is being held in pre-trial detention in the neighboring department of Chimaltenango, Juárez said. If charged and convicted, he could face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 Quetzales ($6,500), according to the Guatemalan penal codeExternal link.

“Francisco Chox should not have spent a day — much less a full week — in jail simply for trying to report on a land dispute,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “Guatemalan authorities must ensure that reporters can work freely, without harassment from either police or protesters. Chox should be released immediately and authorities must investigate the circumstances of his arrest.”

Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan has a long-standing land dispute with the neighboring municipality of Nahualá, where Chox lives, according to news reportsExternal link, which stated that both communities have fought over water use and territorial limits.

Rodríguez and Juárez told CPJ they learned the details of Chox’s case after speaking with the journalist’s lawyer.

Juárez said the lawyer believed the protesters attacked and detained Chox because they identified him as a Nahualá resident. He said Chox showed his press credentials to the police, but that the officers still arrested him.

Chox occasionally freelances for Nim TV about local news issues, and also works as a volunteer firefighter, according to Juárez.

Alfonso Guarqués, president of the journalists association of Sololá, a local trade group, told CPJ in a phone interview that authorities in Sololá transferred Chox to a jail in Chimaltenango contrary to a national banExternal link on inter-departmental travel enacted in March amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guarqués also told CPJ that inmates at the prison have contacted Chox’s family requesting money to “protect” the journalist while behind bars, which he described as blackmail.

Ruth del Valle, a representative from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, a government body tasked with investigating complaints about human rights violations in Guatemala, told CPJ via phone that Chox was transferred to Chimaltenango because the local jails were full.

Although Guatemalan lawExternal link establishes that an initial hearing must take place within 24 hours after an individual is arrested, del Valle told CPJ that the case was first being handled in the jurisdiction of Sololá, but was transferred on June 15 to a judge in Chimaltenango, who scheduled the first hearing for June 18.

“We are concerned that this could take more than a week. We have other cases of people that have been in jail for three weeks without a first hearing because prisons said that they are not transferring inmates to court,” del Valle told CPJ.

CPJ repeatedly called the public prosecutor’s office, but no one answered. CPJ also emailed that office, but did not receive any reply.

In March, CPJ published a report on the deterioration of press freedom in Guatemala, which urged the government to implement a more effective system for responding to press freedom violations.