Arrest of award-winning journalist puts Guatemalan press freedom at risk

On Friday July 29, the police raided the offices of elPeriódico newspaper in Guatemala, seizing printing equipment, computers and files, and detaining several workers in the office overnight. On the same day, the officers stopped José Rubén Zamora, internationally renowned journalist and president of elPeriódico, at his home in Guatemala City on charges of “possible money laundering”.

Press freedom, civil society and journalism organizations around the world, including Journalists Protection Committeethe International Press Institute, and the International Center for Journalists, among others condemned Zamora’s arrest and called for his immediate release. U.S. Under Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs urged “full respect for due process under Guatemalan law and personal safety” for Zamora and elPeriódico journalists.

Zamora, a frequent critic of the increasingly autocratic government of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, described his detention as “political persecution” and declared that if he needs to “pay in prison for our love for Guatemala, then let’s go”.

In the days following the arrest, authorities also frozen Zamora’s and elPeriódico’s bank accounts, threatening the newspaper’s ability to remain operational.

As press freedom is under attack not just in Guatemala but across Latin America, Zamora’s arrest and raid on elPeriódico represent another worrying sign for the future of journalism in the region.

Attacks against elPeriódico and independent media

Zamora’s arrest is the latest attempt by Guatemalan authorities to silence the press. There have been 350 attacks against journalists and their work since Giammattei was elected president in 2020, according to the Association of Guatemalan Journalists. Incidents include judicial harassment, hate speech, stigmatizing rhetoric from the Office of the President and police violence. Guatemala ranks 124 out of 180 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

elPeriódico is no stranger to this crackdown on independent media. “This is not the first censorship attack we have suffered in our history. [The government] perpetrated more than 10 attacks against some of our journalists, against the newspaper in general and against our directors [since 2003]”, Juan Diego Godoyeditor at elPeriódico, says IJNet. In May, Guatemalan officials filed criminal charges against Zamora and two other journalists from the newspaper. in retaliation against their reporting on the unclear role of Guatemalan official Dina Bosch Ochoa within the Guatemalan electoral authority and her alleged links to corruption.

Cyberattacks on elPeriódico website are also common, according to Godoy. “We have been victims of hacker attacks – complex, fairly well organized and orchestrated attacks by groups against our site. We receive at least one heavy attack per month,” he said.

Zamora’s arrest and the raid on elPeriódico the bureaus are an attempt not only to intimidate and censor the paper, but also to shut down its reporting altogether by bankrupting it financially.

The money laundering charges “seek to censor them in the first place, but also to drown them financially to force the closure of their operations”. said Héctor Coloj, coordinator of the Guatemalan Journalists Association. “We believe that actions against [Zamora] are a revenge plan devised by President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General María Consuelo Porras Argueta, due to the investigations, criticisms and publications that the media make on possible acts of corruption in the presidency.

Attorney General Porras has already been sanctioned by the US State Department for “significant corruption”. Rafael Curruchiche, head of the office of the special prosecutor against impunity and responsible for the arrest order, was included last month in the US government’s investigation “Engel Listwhich identifies “corrupt and undemocratic” actors in the region.

Coloj added that the events of last Friday also signal a potential new era of political harassment for journalists in Guatemala:

Press freedom in the region

As press freedom is under threat in Guatemala, journalists look to neighboring Nicaragua as a warning. Godoy cited the example of Cristiana Chamorrojournalist and opposition leader in Nicaragua who, like Zamora, was arrested for money laundering and barred from running for president in 2021.

It’s a tactic employed by authorities around the world: false accusations of tax evasion and money laundering have been used to silence and discredit journalists who criticize governments in the Philippines and Vietnamamong others.

“The issue of money laundering is a modus operandi of governments with dictatorial aspirations to undermine free speech,” Godoy said.

The comparison with Nicaragua could not be more dire for the Guatemalan media. In Nicaragua, attacks, murders and imprisonment of journalists under new legislation have increased, forcing many reporters into exile abroad.

An attack on all

It is essential that civil society mobilizes against Zamora’s arrest, urged Godoy. Otherwise, freedom of the press will continue to erode. “All the media is involved in this,” he said. “It’s an attack on everyone, because we are not the first and we will not be the last.”

International support is particularly crucial. “International organizations, especially in difficult times like these, should serve as an amplifier for complaints filed by local organizations or journalists for attacks against them,” Coloj said. “It is important that the international community be aware of the violence against the press, the censorship and the persecution that exists.

Despite Zamora’s arrest and the closure of the newspaper’s financial accounts, the elPeriódico team continues to report on corruption. Meanwhile, staff are stepping up security precautions, especially around digital security.

“We are saddened and scared by recent events, but the newspaper continues to operate,” Godoy said. “Even if our president is missing, we will continue to speak the truth with our heads held high. Reporting like we always have.

picture by Sandra Sebastian.

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