May 3 marked the thirtieth annual World Press Freedom Day, promoting an independent media free from government censorship and violence around the globe.
But as the international community commemorated the day, it was difficult to celebrate in Central America, where the media has become a target of the far right in recent decades.
The day before World Press Freedom Day, on May 2, the criminal trial against renowned Guatemalan journalist and founder of the newspaper El Periódico, José Rubén Zamora, began in Guatemala City. The case against him has represented one of the gravest attacks on press freedoms in the country.
“I am a political prisoner,” Zamora told journalists as he entered the courthouse in Guatemala City. “I’ve been treated as such.”
He added: “In this trial they are going to sentence me.”
The case is reflective of continued rollbacks of democratic norms by authoritarian governments in the region. The goal is to silence critics and those who investigate acts of corruption.
“The case against [Zamora] is one of the principal illustrations that the co-optation of the judicial system has grave consequences for the freedom of speech,” Carolina Jimenez Sandoval, the president of the Washington Office on Latin America, said during a press conference in Guatemala City on April 21, following a visit to Guatemala along with observers from Human Rights Watch and the Kennedy Center. “His arrest seeks to send a message to journalists to silence [them].”As a result of this case, they show that persecuting the press is a fairly clear objective in a strategy of silencing [critics].”
Zamora is facing charges of money laundering, blackmail, and influence peddling. He was arrested in July 2022, and has spent months in pre-trial detention. But these charges are dubious at best, as the case was developed in just seventy-two hours.
For nearly three decades, El Periódico has been one of the leading investigators of corruption and impunity in Guatemala. In June 2021, they were at the forefront of investigations into secret negotiations between the administration of former President Alejandro Giammattei and corruption related to the purchase of the Russian-made Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine. The paper also covered how representatives associated with Russian mining interests delivered a carpet filled with cash to the president’s home.
Among those who have persecuted Zamora is far-right organization Foundation Against Terrorism, which was founded in 2013 to defend ex-military officers from prosecution for war crimes committed during the country’s thirty-six-year-long internal armed conflict. Led by Ricardo Méndez Ruíz, the son of the late colonel Ricardo Méndez Ruiz Rohrmoser, the organization has increasingly become involved in cases against those who have investigated, reported on, prosecuted, or judged on cases involving corruption as well as those involving cases of transitional justice.
The Guatemala public prosecutor’s office has also moved against Zamora’s defense team. Two lawyers, Mario Castañeda and Romeo Montoya have been convicted following their acceptance of the corruption charges levied against them, which is allowed by a 2019 measure that essentially lets off those accused in corruption cases if they admit their guilt. But as Carlos Menocal, a former minister of the interior, pointed out during a live-streamed interview, Castañeda had agreed to the charges under torture. Two other lawyers, Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa and Justino Brito, were arrested in April 2023.
While the trial against Zamora continues, the attacks on the press in Guatemala are reflective of the rollbacks of press freedom in the region over the past decade. As his case has shown, access to proper defense for those accused has also been undermined. This is reflected elsewhere in the region as well.
“A good symptom of the health of any democracy is the possibility of the exercising of the independence of the press,” Iduvina Hernández, the director of the Guatemalan organization Security in Democracy, tells The Progressive. “We have a situation of practically annulment of all possibility of the exercise of independent journalism in Nicaragua with the Ortega/Murillo dictatorship, a path that El Salvador is following dangerously close.”
Between 2021 and 2023, at least twenty-two journalists have been forced to flee Guatemala.
“Today the exercise of journalism is what the press experienced during the internal armed conflict,” Hernandez adds, “self-censorship as a method of survival.”
In an editorial published on April 13, the well-respected Salvadoran media outlet El Faro announced that they are moving their administrative and legal operations from El Salvador to Costa Rica following years of repression by the administration of president Nayib Bukele. The decision comes after the Bukele administration has increasingly worked to concentrate power around himself.
“The dismantling of democracy, the lack of checks and balances on the exercise of power by a small group of people, the attacks against press freedom, and the shuttering of all transparency and accountability mechanisms gravely threaten Salvadorans’ right to be informed,” the paper’s editors wrote in the editorial.
They emphasized that the El Faro newsroom would remain in El Salvador, even though its journalists have faced intimidation and surveillance by the Bukele administration. In 2022, the extent of this surveillance emerged when it was discovered that the government had installed spyware on the cellphones of journalists and activists.
At least eleven journalists from El Salvador have been forced into exile since 2022.
Since 2018, Nicaraguan journalists have also been forced to flee the country following the crackdown on dissent by co-Presidents (and spouses) Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, as they continue entrenching their authoritarian regime.
In 2018, many Nicaraguan media outlets faced raids and had their equipment confiscated by police, who also arrested journalists for their work. Since then, the campaign against the independence of the media has expanded greatly, leading to many outlets closing and journalists forced into exile.
This is only the latest press crackdown in the region, where it has long been dangerous to be a journalist in Central America. During the internal armed conflicts in the regions between the 1960’s and 1990’s, journalists were regularly targeted.
Almost four decades ago, on May 30, 1984, four people were killed and fifteen others were severely wounded in La Penca, Nicaragua when a bomb went off at a press conference. Among those killed were three journalists: Costa Ricans Jorge Quirós, a cameraman for Canal 6 TV, and his assistant, Evelio Sequeira, as well as U.S. reporter Linda Frazier of the Costa Rican English-language outlet Tico Times.
Costa Rica today celebrates that day as The National Day of the Journalist, even as regimes throughout Central America continue to silence and harm the press.
“If they don’t put you in jail, then you have to go into exile,” Hernández says. “The scheme towards which it points is to force censorship and later without the capacity to operate.”
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