One of Guatemala’s best-known journalists faces up to 40 years in prison on Wednesday in a case that has raised alarm about pressures on democracy in Central America’s largest economy.
José Rubén Zamora said he believed the charges of money laundering, blackmail and influence peddling were brought against him in retaliation for stories published by his newspaper about alleged corruption by President Alejandro Giammattei’s government.
Days before his final hearing, Zamora told the Financial Times: “What (the president) has done to me is terrible. . . (But) I’m glad he put me here because I did my job well. Giammattei’s office denied any role in Zamora’s case.
Detained in the isolation wing of a prison on the outskirts of Guatemala City, businessman and journalist Zamora has gained international acclaim for his work exposing corruption since the country’s civil war.
Zamora has been the target of attacks, raids and threats for decades. But in May he said political and economic pressures had made it impossible to continue and closed El Periódico, the newspaper he started when the country signed peace accords in 1996 to end its 36-year civil war.
The detention and possible conviction of one of the country’s most prominent journalists has sparked fear among Guatemala’s reporters, with more than 20 fleeing the country in just over a year, according to the journalism collective #NoNosCellaran (“They will not silence us”).
Zamora’s case comes as members of the media across the region face increasing physical and legal threats, forcing major outlets such as El Faro in El Salvador and La Prensa in Nicaragua to move abroad.
The verdict in Zamora’s case could come less than two weeks before the presidential and congressional elections.
“Everyone is terrified,” Zamora said of the country’s press. He spoke from prison at a military base surrounded by lush green forest where he is kept separate from other prisoners. Zamora has only one hour a day outside his cell on a small patio.
Giammattei has insisted that one free press in Guatemala and underlined its importance in building democracy. A spokesman for him rejected any suggestion that he was involved in Zamora’s case, stressing that the executive branch is separate from the judiciary.
“Guatemala respects and works to ensure the free exercise of journalism,” the spokesperson said. “We have counted more than 6,000 critical stories about the government of Guatemala and there has been no censorship, so publishing unfounded claims is an irresponsible decision.”
Giammattei and other political leaders have stressed that the case against Zamora is about how he handled the newspapers’ finances, not the stories. “Does freedom of the press mean immunity for his actions committed not as a journalist but as a businessman?” Giammattei told Colombian radio earlier this year.
Zamora and rights groups say the case is politically motivated and plagued with procedural irregularities. He was arrested within days of the original complaint and the case was completed in just a year in a country with widespread impunity and where cases often drag on for years. Prosecutors have demanded a higher sentence because he “disrespected the authorities”.
The nation’s attorney general and top anti-corruption prosecutors sit on top of Washington’s list of undemocratic and corrupt actors.
Prosecutors have also filed cases against several of Zamora’s lawyers, reporters and family members, including last week asking the now-closed El Periódico for all the stories published by nine of its journalists since July 2022.
“This is something you would expect in Cuba, not in a democratic country,” said Juan Pappier, acting deputy director for America at Human Rights Watch. “There is an attempt to destroy the independent press in Guatemala in various ways.”
Several journalists in Guatemala said they felt they should be careful about publishing stories. In March, the US embassy in Guatemala said it was “deeply concerned” by reports of an investigation into El Periódico journalists.
Journalist Sonny Figueroa, founder of Guatemalan news site Vox Populi, said there are still critical journalists in the country doing essential work, but he has faced harassment, death threats and a criminal complaint filed by subjects in a corruption story. He and his reporting partner Marvin Del Cid had already temporarily left the country twice. “We’re standing with one leg out and one leg in,” he said.
The push to prosecute journalists intensified after the state had already brought cases against former officials, who had been investigating corruption with a UN-backed commission known as the CICIG. The CICIG filed more than 120 cases and helped to overthrow former president Otto Pérez Molina, but its mandate was not renewed by the former government in 2019.
Since then, many of those involved in adjudicating the cases have themselves been prosecuted, and more than 30 former justice system officials have left the country, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Claudia Samayoa, founder of the nonprofit Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit in Guatemala, called the crackdown “the politics of revenge”.
Samayoa said prosecutors are increasingly using organized crime laws to pursue reporters. “The real purpose of all these cases is to capture the journalist. . . it’s very easy to get put in jail, it’s hard to get out,” she said.
Zamora, who spends his days reading a stack of books, from novels by Jorge Luis Borges to a biography by Winston Churchill, said he thought of Guatemala and neighboring authoritarian Nicaragua as “twin brothers”.
“We are at great risk . . . of becoming a tyrannical, fascist dictatorship,” he said.