In the late afternoon of July 29, Guatemalan National Police raided the home and office of the founder of one of Guatemala’s daily newspapers under orders from the country’s public prosecutor’s office. In the raids, El Periódico’s founder, internationally renowned journalist José Rubén Zamora, was arrested.
At least eight members of the staff of El Periódico were also detained for more than sixteen hours by police and investigators from the Public Prosecutor’s office as they searched the facilities just outside of Guatemala City. Staff were denied the ability to use the bathroom, eat, sleep, or take medication during their detention.
The paper did not publish its Saturday edition the following day. But Zamora’s arrest, along with the search of El Periódico’s offices, had already generated concern among press and human rights organizations.
“This is a strong blow,” Claudia Samoyoa, founder of the Guatemalan human rights organization UDEFEGUA, tells The Progressive. “This [case is meant] to tell all independent journalists and independent media that they cannot really speak.”
The United States Department of State also decried Zamora’s detention.
“Safeguarding Press Freedom is essential to Democracy,” tweeted Brian A. Nichols, the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs within the U.S. State Department. “The United States urges full respect of due process under [Guatemalan] law and protection of personal safety for El Periódico, José Ruben Zamora, and FECI prosecutor Samari Gómez.”
“All of these attacks on journalists have to do with coverage of corrupt actions of mayors and congressional representatives and companies.”
The same day, Samari Gómez Díaz, an assistant prosecutor with Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), was also arrested and incarcerated on an accusation of the leaking of documents related to the case against Zamora. Her case currently awaits trial.
FECI head Rafael Curruchiche said in a statement that the arrest and search were not related to El Periódico’s reporting. Rather, according to Curruchiche, Zamora was arrested for influence peddling, money laundering, and blackmail, charges that a judge later accepted. Curruchiche himself was sanctioned after being included on the Engel List in July 2022 by the U.S. Department of State for his part in corruption and anti-democratic actions.
Despite the assertion that the raid was unrelated to any news reporting, the newspaper’s bank accounts were embargoed by FECI on August 1, leaving the paper without the means to pay staff.
“What we have here is the [public prosecutor] saying one thing, but doing another,” Marielos Chang, an independent political analyst, tells The Progressive. “These damages that they are carrying out against Zamora end up limiting the freedom of expression that the newspaper has.”
“This is worrying,” she adds, “because we have already seen this in other cases in the region.”
The attacks on the press come as Guatemala’s legislature has consolidated into an anti-democratic and pro-impunity majority alliance, popularly known as the “corruption pact.” It is made up of a majority of congressional representatives who have been accused of corruption or of undermining anti-corruption efforts—an especially worrying trend as Guatemala approaches the 2023 election cycle.
“[Zamora] is not the first and I do not think he will be the last journalist who will be persecuted,” Chang says. “It is to limit the political participation of the opposition.”
The Guatemalan media rallied to Zamora’s defense, holding protests on July 30 and August 1 outside of the Tribunal Tower, the central court building. During both protests, the Guatemalan National Civilian Police remained vigilant, taking photos of those protesting and contributing to the sense of unease.
The details of the case are being withheld by the Public Prosecutor’s office. But what is currently known is that they stem from a denouncement by the Foundation Against Terrorism, a far-right organization with ties to the country’s military that the U.S. State Department has sanctioned for its anti-democratic activities.
The information related to the case that is available has been provided by government-sponsored misinformation social media accounts, known as “net-centers.” Guatemala’s Attorney General María Consuelo Porras has declined to comment on how these net-centers have gained access to this information.
El Periódico has regularly reported on and denounced the rampant corruption in Guatemala. Zamora’s arrest is just the latest in a series of attacks against the paper that date back decades, which have included cyber-attacks, abductions, and death threats.
After El Periódico published a report on former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt’s ties to mafia groups in 2003, Zamora and his family were held hostage in their home by a group of masked people, who beat him and his children. He was later abducted in 2008, beaten, and left half naked over twenty-five miles outside of Guatemala City. In 2016, he briefly went into exile.
Over the past two years, attacks on the press have steadily increased in a country where the harassment, incarceration, and exile of journalists is already systemic. In 2022, prior to Zamora’s July arrest, El Periódico’s Juan Luis Font was forced to flee the country due to the outlet’s reporting. UDEFEGUA estimates that there are currently at least five Guatemalan journalists in exile.
This intensifying political pressure has placed independent and community journalists particularly at risk.
“There are various journalists who have been criminalized,” Samoyoa says. “All of these attacks on journalists have to do with coverage of corrupt actions of mayors and congressional representatives and companies.”
Sonny Figueroa and Marvin del Cid, both of whom work for the independent news site VoxPopuli, have faced attacks, harassment, and criminalization for their investigative work. Figueroa was arbitrarily detained by police in September 2020 and later released. Other journalists have shared their experiences of repression and intimidation through the country’s net-centers.
Indigenous journalists have been particularly singled out and targeted. Anastasia Mejía was arrested and later freed for her coverage of a protest that led to the burning of the municipal building of Joyabaj, Quiche, in 2020; Francisco Chox was attacked in 2020 for his coverage of protests in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, Sololá; and Carlos Choc has faced criminal prosecution and regular harassment for his work covering the impacts of the Fenix mining project in El Estor, Izabal.
“Choc reported on the death of one of the protesters who was demonstrating against the mine in the region,” Chang says. “He currently has an arrest warrant against him.”
These are only a few of the attacks on journalists in the last few years. Repression tactics have also expanded online.
The independent investigative media outlet No-Ficción saw its followers erased on Twitter overnight in a July 2022 cyber attack. The incident followed the outlet’s publication of a report on Alejandro Sinibaldi, the former Minister of Communication, Infrastructure, and Housing, that detailed kickbacks he had received while commissioning infrastructure projects in the country.
“In the last three years of this government [their goal] has been to ensure impunity, over building roads, schools, and hospitals,” Chang says. “And to do that, they are attacking those who have carried out investigations into corruption that make us realize that things are not being done well.”
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