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Published on 15/Jul/2013

The Guatemalan government has taken steps towards improving the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure, but Internet connectivity and access in Guatemala remain limited, particularly in rural areas. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2011, only 11.7 percent of Guatemalans used the Internet. Although the nation’s constitution protects freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and individual privacy, government officials routinely violate these rights. Recent constitutional reforms have legalized various electronic surveillance techniques that threaten online privacy. ONI tests on Guatemala’s largest ISPs show no evidence of Internet filtering by the Guatemalan government.

Results At A Glance

FILTERING No evidence of filtering Suspected filtering Selective filtering Substantial filtering Pervasive filtering
Internet tools      
OTHER FACTORS Not Applicable Low Medium High

Key Indicators

    worst best
GDP per capita, PPP (constant 2005 international $) 4286
Life expectancy at birth (years) 71
Literacy rate (% of people age 15+) 74
Human Development Index (out of 182 countries) 116
Rule of Law (scale of 0-5) 1.4
Voice and Accountability (scale of 0-5) 2.2
EIU Democracy Index (out of 167 countries) 75
Digital Opportunity Index (out of 181 countries) 108
Internet users (% of population) 11.7


Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic under the leadership of President Otto Fernando Pérez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriotic Party), who took office in January 2012. Molina succeeded Álvaro Colom of the social-democratic political party, Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity of Hope or UNE), who had been in office since 2008.1

Over the latter half of the twentieth century, Guatemala endured decades of civil war between government military forces, the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity or URNG) guerilla army, and right-wing paramilitary groups, during which an estimated 200,000 people either were killed or disappeared.2 During the civil war, Guatemala became one of the most dangerous countries in the world for investigative journalists.3 Though the 1985 constitution explicitly protects press freedom and certain journalists’ rights,4 journalists investigating crime and police and government corruption continue to face threats from state officials and leaders of organized crime groups.5

Six major daily newspapers are published in the country, all of which are based in Guatemala City, the nation’s capital, and are also available online.6 Over six hundred radio stations also operate in the country, many of which are independently run.7 As in many countries in the region, political and financial leaders in Guatemala form part of a small and highly interconnected elite that wield a powerful influence over the media. Mexican media tycoon Remigio Ángel González, who has been an active fundraiser for the campaigns of several right-wing politicians, owns all four of Guatemala’s private television networks, in spite of laws against both foreign ownership and media monopolies.8 In 2001, national daily newspaper elPeriodico exposed the corrupt practices of former Minister of Communications Luis Rabbé, a brother-in-law and former employee of Angel González.9 Reporters at elPeriodico were later threatened by Rabbé’s supporters and suspected that González was behind these threats. .10 The country has witnessed numerous similar incidents over the last several decades, in which political leaders have used threats and intimidation tactics to discourage journalists from investigating political corruption.11 This has not only served to normalize corrupt practices, but also to increase self-censorship among journalists. In 2012, Guatemala’s Congress voted to ban members of the press from attending certain congressional sessions, despite internal opposition on the matter.12

The pervasive presence of organized crime groups and drug cartels, many of which work with Mexican cartels trafficking drugs to the United States, has also negatively affected journalism in Guatemala.13 The national press freedom advocacy group CERIGUA reported that 36 violations of press freedom took place in 2012, ranging from threats of violence or death to instances of censorship in print and broadcast media.14 The group reports that two journalists have been killed in Guatemala in 2013, but motives in these killings have not been confirmed.15 Reports by various press freedom advocacy groups indicate that journalists have deliberately limited their coverage of organized crime, drug trafficking, and political corruption because of the threat of violent retaliation by the groups and insufficient protection from persecution by public authorities.16 In an October 2012 report, CERIGUA asserted that threats from organized crime groups, including drug cartels, were the leading cause of media censorship in the country.17

Although only 11.7 percent of Guatemalans have access to the Internet, information and communications technologies have nevertheless begun to play a critical role in exposing incidents of government corruption and crime. After the assassination of prominent attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg on May 10, 2009, a pre-recorded video was released on YouTube in which Rosenberg accused President Colom of committing multiple acts of political corruption. In the video, Rosenberg asserted that if he were to be murdered, the president would be directly responsible.18 The video triggered protests both on and offline calling for the president’s resignation. After performing an independent investigation of the case, the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala or CICIG) concluded that Rosenberg had plotted the murder himself in order to frame the president and spark social unrest.19 In the wake of the scandal surrounding Rodrigo Rosenberg’s death, the public blogging platform was blocked on multiple ISPs in the country for several days. Twitter users speculated that Chapintocables,20 a WordPress blog created during the scandal on which contributors commented on political corruption in the country, might have been the target of the censorship.21

Since this incident, the Guatemalan government has become increasingly wary of the power of social media. Months after the Rosenberg scandal, Twitter user Jean Anleu Fernández sent a tweet encouraging his followers to divest from the state-owned bank, Banrural, as a first step towards “bankrupt[ing] the bank of the corrupt.” Fernández was detained for inciting “financial panic,” a crime in Guatemala, and was ordered to pay a $6,500 fine.22 This angered many bloggers and members of the Twitter community, who launched an online campaign to help him pay the fines and legal fees.23 He was soon released; in December 2009, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that he had not committed a crime of financial panic.24 The incident is now known as Guatemala’s “Twitter Revolution.”25

Internet in Guatemala

Guatemala connected to the global Internet in 1992, through the Americas Region Caribbean Ring System (ARCOS-1) and the SAM-1 submarine fiber optic system.26 The .gt domain is administrated by the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala,27 and the nation has nearly thirty ISPs.28 The Guatemalan government has expressed a commitment to expanding Internet connectivity, but congressional budget allocations for technological infrastructure development are low relative to other nations in the region.29

The Secretary of Science and Technology reported in 2007 that just over two percent of Guatemalans have Internet connections in their homes; the government has not released new figures in this area since that time. 30 The telecommunications industry association GSMA reported in 2010 a fixed broadband penetration rate of 15.8 percent; GSMA also reported that 53 percent of Guatemalans owned cell phones and that 24 percent of these phones were Internet capable.31 In addition to private connections, many Guatemalans are able to access the Internet at telecommunications centers where pay telephones and computers with Internet access are available for public use.32 The government has also established several community Internet centers where citizens may access the web and participate in digital education classes.33

In 2007, the Guatemalan Ministry of Education launched an initiative called Escuelas del Futuro (Schools of the Future) with support from Qualcomm Inc., telecommunications company TELGUA, education foundation FunSEPA, and USAID. Through this program, the Guatemalan Ministry of Education has provided computers, Internet access, and digital education curricula to 54 of the nation’s secondary schools.34 35 Intecap, a state-owned technical training company, and several state universities have begun offering distance and e-learning opportunities for adults online.36

Beyond government efforts, NGOs such as Enlace Quiché,37 RAGIE38 and CEIBA39 have created programs that aim to increase Internet connectivity and access opportunities. The Mesoamerican Information and Technology Highway, an organization funded in part by the Inter-American Development Bank, is in the process of building a broadband network that will improve national Internet access.40

High levels of illiteracy and language barriers have a significant impact on how Guatemalans experience the Internet. At 74.5 percent, Guatemala’s literacy rate is among the lowest in the Americas.41 In many rural areas, indigenous languages such as Quiché Maya are often the primary languages spoken, rather than Spanish, and web content is seldom available in these languages. Local and international NGOs such as Kyosei Cities and the Council for Mayan Communications are working to change this by creating multilingual platforms for digital learning and political participation that are geared towards indigenous communities.42 43 Cholsamaj, a publishing house that exclusively serves indigenous authors, has begun publishing these works (along with Spanish translations) online.44

In 2006, The Scotsman reported that Broadband Bridge Services, a Scottish Internet Service Provider, was under contract in Guatemala to develop and distribute an Internet filtering and monitoring service called GuardianBox for individual household or business use. GuardianBox can block access to content deemed inappropriate for children and can be used by companies to monitor employees’ Internet use.45 Subsequent reports on the use of GuardianBox in Guatemala are unavailable; whether the government or individual ISPs have implemented the software is unclear.

Legal and Regulatory Framework

Guatemala is a member of the United Nations and the Organization of American States and is signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights46 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.47 Article 35 of the Guatemalan Constitution guarantees freedom of opinion, and Article 9 guarantees freedom of the press.48 Yet recent laws have undermined these constitutional guarantees, putting free expression in danger in Guatemala in both print and online media.

The Ley de Emisión del Pensamiento (Law on Expression of Thought) is the primary law regulating freedom of speech in Guatemala. Under this law, no person may be harassed or persecuted for his or her opinions.49 The law prohibits the forcible closure of newspapers and the refusal to grant press or broadcast licenses to media organizations. The law also outlaws libel, slander, and treason in printed form, and stipulates that the author of any publication containing an opinion that the judiciary considers to be subversive, morally damaging, or “disrespectful” of private life may be subject to punishment. .50

The Law on Expression of Thought explicitly requires newspapers that have incorrectly attributed acts to or published false information about people or entities to publish any corrections, explanations, or refutations sent to them by those they have accused.51 In cases of printed material that involves treason, is subversive, is “damaging to morals,” or contains slander or libel, newspapers may be subject to a trial by jury; decisions may be appealed within 48 hours. The law makes an exception when the offended party is a government employee or official: if the offending content concerns “purely official acts” related to government work, the case will be judged in a “court of honor,” and the decision will be final and closed to appeal.52

The Ley de Orden Público (Law of Public Order) states that if the government has declared the country to be “in a state of siege,” journalists must “refrain from publishing anything that might cause confusion or panic.” 53

In 2012, the Ley General de Telecomunicaciones (General Law of Telecommunications) was reformed to allow for the automatic renewal of spectrum licenses for television and radio frequencies for those who had leased them previously. Press freedom groups and local UN representatives criticized the change, arguing that it would restrict the rights and capabilities of community television and radio groups.54 Two radio stations and six local TV channels have been closed down since the legislation was passed.55

The Ley de Proteccion Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia (Law on the Protection of Children and Adolescents) permits the restriction of content for children younger than eighteen years of age if it is deemed harmful to their development. Media outlets and organizers of public events are required to evaluate and classify programmed content according to this law.56

Guatemala altered its Penal Code to include cybercrime in 2000.57 Under the Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism, which the Guatemalan Congress ratified in 2006, banking institutions are required to disclose to the government the personal and financial information of all customers who perform online transactions.58


Under the Ley Contra la Delincuencia Organizada (Law Against Organized Crime), the government may record and monitor the conversations of any individual in person, by telephone, or online, provided that it has obtained a judicial warrant to do so.59 The Ley de Dirección General de Inteligencia Civil (Law of the Direction of Civil Intelligence) calls for the establishment of a state counterintelligence division to monitor potential terrorist activity using electronic surveillance methods.60 In 2007 the Law of the Direction of Civil Intelligence and the Law Against Organized Crime were challenged in the nation’s constitutional court. 61 The court upheld both laws as necessary for guaranteeing public safety, even though they stand in violation of constitutional laws that protect privacy and freedom of expression.62

Article 31 of the Constitution guarantees the citizen’s right to know and obtain any information about himself that appears in public record; he also has the right to know why the record is being kept, and to request updates to the record.63

Despite its expansive legal powers, the government has allegedly engaged in extralegal surveillance operations in recent years. In 2006, Prensa Libre, one of Guatemala's most popular and respected newspapers, reported that several of its phones had been tapped without judicial authorization, either by military intelligence officers or by individual government officials.64 In January 2007, the NGO Seguridad en Democracia (Security in Democracy) accused the government of engaging in widespread electronic surveillance of the civilian population.65 In October 2008, former president Colom found cameras and audio recording devices hidden in his offices and home. Many believed that the president was placed under surveillance due to allegations that he had been involved with an organized crime group.66

In November 2008, the Public Prosecutors Office, the Ministry of the Interior, and CICIG signed the Inter-institutional Agreement for the Establishment and Implementation of a Wire Tapping System. Under the agreement, a wiretapping center would be established and administered by the Office of the Public Prosecutor and the Ministry of the Interior.67

In June 2009, the Reglamento para la Aplicación de Métodos Especiales de Averiguación (Regulation on the use of special investigatory methods) was approved; this law obligates private telecommunications companies and service providers to collaborate in police investigations by recording and releasing the communicational exchanges of their customers. Police may request a recording of any electronic conversation that may pertain to a criminal investigation.68

ONI Testing Results

In May 2011, ONI conducted tests on three Guatemalan Internet Service Providers (ISPs): Unisky, Telgua, and Comcel. Testing revealed no evidence of Internet filtering. Popular blogging service WordPress, which in 2009 was reported to be blocked in Guatemala on the ISPs Telgua and Comcel, was accessible at the time of testing.69


Although the government has expressed a commitment to increasing public Internet access and connectivity, Guatemala’s Internet penetration rate remains relatively low, and illiteracy and language barriers prevent many Guatemalans from participating in online activity. Many Guatemalans who do have Internet access have begun to use online social networks to engage in political debate and activism, and these digital networks have become powerful tools for revealing cases of government corruption. In spite of laws protecting freedom of expression and preventing indiscriminate surveillance, the government has been accused of performing illegal acts of surveillance, invading the privacy of human rights activists and members of the press. Although ONI tests showed no evidence of Internet filtering in Guatemala, recent events suggest that online surveillance may become more prevalent as more Guatemalans gain Internet access.