Arrest of Award-Winning Journalist Puts Guatemalan Press Freedom on the Line

By: Devin Windelspecht and Aurora Martínez | 08/05/2022
Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, after being arrested in Guatemala City, on July 29, 2022. (Photo by Johan ORDONEZ / AFP)

This article was first published Aug. 4 on IJNet.

On Friday, July 29, police raided the offices of elPeriódico newspaper in Guatemala, seizing printing equipment, computers and files, and holding several workers in the office overnight. The same day, officers arrested José Rubén Zamora, an 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 globally, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Press Institute, and the International Center for Journalistsamong others have condemned Zamora’s arrest and called for his immediate release. The U.S. Assistant 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, has called his detainment “political persecution,” and declared that if he needs “to pay with jail time for our love for Guatemala, then here we go.” 

In the days after the arrest, authorities also froze the bank accounts of both Zamora and elPeriódico, threatening the paper’s ability to remain operational.

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

Attacks on elPeriódico and independent media 

Zamora’s arrest is the latest attempt by Guatemalan authorities to silence the press. There have been 350 attacks on 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 presidency, and police violence. Guatemala ranks 124 out of 180 countries in the latest press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders.

elPeriódico is no stranger to this repression of independent media. “This is not the first attack of censorship that we have suffered in our history. [The government] has carried out more than 10 attacks against some of our journalists, against the newspaper in general and against our directors [since 2003],” Juan Diego Godoy, editor at elPeriódicotold IJNet. In May, Guatemalan officials brought criminal charges against Zamora and two other journalists from the newspaper in retaliation for their reporting on Guatemalan official Dina Bosch Ochoa’s unclear role at the Guatemalan Electoral Authority and her alleged connections to corruption.

Cyberattacks on elPeriódico’s website are also frequent, according to Godoy. “We have been the victims of hacker attacks — complex, and quite well staged and orchestrated attacks by groups against our site. We get at least one heavy attack a month,” he said.

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

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

Attorney General Porras has previously been sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for “significant corruption.” Rafael Curruchiche, head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity and responsible for ordering the arrest, was last month included on the U.S. government’s “Engel List,” which identifies "corrupt and undemocratic" actors in the region.

Coloj added that last Friday’s events also signal a potential new era of political harassment for journalists in Guatemala: “There is the fear that the Zamora case is the beginning of a process of indiscriminate hunting of the media, journalists and communicators critical of the Giammattei regime.”

Press freedom in the region

As press freedom comes under attack in Guatemala, journalists are looking next door to Nicaragua as a warning. Godoy pointed to the example of Cristiana Chamorro, a journalist and opposition leader in Nicaragua who, like Zamora, was arrested on money laundering charges and barred from running for president in 2021.

It’s a tactic employed by authoritarians globally: trumped-up tax evasion and money laundering charges have been used to silence and discredit journalists critical of governments in the Philippines and Vietnam, among others.

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

The comparison to Nicaragua could not be more dire for Guatemalan media. In Nicaragua, attacks, murders and the imprisonment of journalists under new legislation has been on the rise, forcing many reporters into exile abroad. 

An attack on all

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

International support is especially crucial. “International organizations, particularly in difficult times like these, should serve as an amplifier for the complaints filed by local organizations or journalists for the attacks against them,” said Coloj. “It is important that the international community is 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 its reporting on corruption. Meanwhile, staff are enhancing security precautions, especially in digital safety.

“We are sad and scared by recent events, but the newspaper continues to function,” said Godoy. “Even if our president is missing, we will continue to report the truth with our heads held high. Reporting as we have always done.”

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