Embattled Guatemalan publisher Zamora dragged back into court on obstruction of justice charges
Leading Guatemalan journalist Jose Rubén Zamora is due to appear back in court on 5 February in an obstruction of justice case – the latest of three politically motivated cases against him. Zamora has been detained for more than 550 days in connection with a money-laundering case, despite the fact that this conviction was overturned in October. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) representatives will be present in the courtroom to monitor the hearing, as part of an advocacy mission to the country.
The legal battle continues for Jose Rubén Zamora, one of Guatemala’s biggest names in journalism, and founder of the newspaper elPeriódico. He is due to appear back in court on 5 February in an obstruction of justice case, in which he and his former lawyers are accused of conspiring to interfere with investigations into the prior money-laundering case against him. Zamora’s lawyers were convicted on these charges in January and April 2023. The hearing involving Zamora has already been postponed twice, while his expected retrial for money laundering has also been delayed.
This hearing marks Zamora’s first court appearance during the new administration of President Bernardo Arévalo, who took office on 14 January. Arévalo recently declared that his government "will not use tools to pursue legal action against the press," while emphasising that "freedom of expression is a priority.” RSF's Latin America Bureau Director Artur Romeu will be in Guatemala City to observe the hearing, and to meet with officials from the new government, lawyers, and journalists. RSF has also formally requested to visit Zamora in prison.
The imprisonment of Jose Rubén Zamora – which is emblematic of the criminalisation of journalism enacted by the former government of Alejandro Giammattei – is becoming an unavoidable imperative for the new government of Bernardo Arévalo, who took office with a commitment to guarantee press freedom in the country. It is deplorable that one of the biggest names in Guatemalan journalism has been imprisoned for more than 550 days while he awaits retrial on spurious charges. Zamora must be immediately released and the Arévalo administration must ensure that all further proceedings against him are conducted in accordance with due process and the right to a fair trial.
At 67 years old, Zamora has been detained since 29 July 2022 on the basis of a preventive prison order relating to the money-laundering case against him. He was sentenced to six years in prison in June 2023. However, this conviction was overturned by the appellate court in October 2023 due to procedural irregularities raised by the prosecution. This case was also scheduled for retrial on February, but has since been postponed while the Supreme Court of Justice’s Criminal Chamber is considering a motion to disqualify three judges. The same Chamber is also considering the prosecution’s extraordinary appeal for substitutive measures, which is delaying a decision on Zamora’s request to be released to house arrest – meaning he currently remains detained as he awaits retrial in the money-laundering case. In addition to these two cases, the journalist is also facing a third case on allegations of forging signatures on immigration control documents.
President Arévalo’s expected review of the government's position in Zamora’s upcoming retrial, as well as other ongoing cases against the press, will prove to be a crucial step towards reframing these cases and reversing the dangerous trends enacted by the previous administration.
Just two weeks into his new administration, Arévalo emphasised that Zamora's case is "emblematic" of the political persecution journalists face in the country. Arévalo mentioned that while his government does not have the authority to release Zamora, he hoped that in the retrial, Zamora would be released to house arrest as legal proceedings continue. Arévalo’s comments followed a visit to Zamora in prison by Minister of Governance, Francisco Jimenez, the day after taking office.
Guatemala is ranked 127th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index.