Newspaper director jailed by Guatemala’s increasingly authoritarian government
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Guatemalan authorities to free detained newspaper director José Rubén Zamora at once and to abandon their offensive against critical and independent media. Zamora has been held since 29 July, when police arrested him at his Guatemala City home and raided his newspaper.
“The Guatemalan government has crossed a red line by jailing José Rubén Zamora,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau. “This misuse of the judicial system for the purpose of censorship is unacceptable. It constitutes yet another attempt by the authorities to silence the newspaper elPeriódico and other critical media outlets. We call for the withdrawal of all charges against José Rubén Zamora and for his immediate release. His reporting and commitment to combatting corruption are crucial for the people of Guatemala.”
Zamora was with his family, including his grandchildren, when several detachments of heavily armed and hooded police accompanied by members of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) stormed into his home on the afternoon of 29 July and summarily took him away without offering any explanation.
During the raid, the police confiscated the phones and passports of family members who were present. At the same time, police raided the headquarters of Zamora’s newspaper, elPeriódico, and prevented the journalists who were there from communicating with anyone and from finishing production of that day’s edition.
Zamora is accused of blackmail, influence peddling and money laundering – charges that, according to the prosecutor’s office, are linked to his work as a company director and not in any way to “his activities as a journalist and newspaper founder.” This claim is surprising, to say the least, especially as, after freezing Zamora’s bank account on 29 July, the authorities went on to freeze elPeriódico’s accounts during the weekend, making it very for the newspaper to operate.
A preliminary hearing initially scheduled for 1 August was finally held yesterday (3 August). After the charges were read out, the court granted Zamora’s request for the hearing to be suspended so that he could engage a new defence team, as his lawyers are also charged in the same case.
Zamora’s arrest has elicited many reactions and expression of support for this journalist both in Guatemala and abroad. Aged 65 and the founder of three newspapers – Siglo Veintiuno in 1990, elPeriódico in 1996 and Nuestro Diario in 1998 – Zamora is a highly experienced and professional journalist who has received many journalism awards and is renowned for his unwavering commitment to press freedom.
Over the years, elPeriódico has established itself as one of Guatemala’s leading newspapers. At the same time, as a result of exposing corruption cases involving members of successive governments, and exposing abuses by both politicians and private sector companies, the newspaper has for nearly two decades been the repeated target of threats, intimidation, arbitrary judicial proceedings and cyber-attacks.
After publishing the findings of an investigation into links between the Guatemalan army and local organised crime groups in 2003, Zamora and members of his family were held hostage in their home for several hours by 17 armed individuals claiming to be members of the national police. Several members of his family left the country in the wake of this episode, while the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked the Guatemalan authorities to adopt preventive measures to guarantee Zamora’s safety. Such measures were finally put in place, but were abandoned a few months later.
In 2008, immediately after the newspaper published an investigative piece reporting that drug traffickers were funding one of Guatemala’s leading political parties, the National Unity of Hope (UNE), Zamora was abducted, drugged, tortured and then dumped at the side of a road.
In 2021, elPeriódico reported that President Alejandro Giammattei had taken bribes from Russian businessmen in exchange for mining permits. This story spawned a series of further revelations that became an international corruption scandal dubbed “La Trama Rusa,” enraging the president and triggering a new wave of attacks and arbitrary legal proceedings against members of the newspaper’s staff and its founder.
José Zamora, one of Zamora’s sons who is also a journalist and who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States for the past 18 years, told RSF that “La Trama Rusa” was the breaking point.
“Pressure on the newspaper has stepped up since 2021 and, in recent months, several sources warned us of my father’s impending arrest,” he said. “It’s censorship, a strategy to silence critical media. Ever since its creation, elPeriódico has denounced the corruption that plagues our country more and more, which is why it is constantly vilified and harassed. They targeted the prosecutors first, then the judges and now the media."
Ever since Giammattei became president in 2020, his government and, in particular, Consuelo Porras, who is attorney general and chief of the public prosecutor's office, have been trying to bring criminal proceedings against officials and judges in charge of corruption cases.
Former attorney general Thelma Aldana and the then head of the Special Prosecutor’s office Against Impunity, Juan Francisco Sandoval, fled the country in 2021 fearing for their safety. Sandoval had just been fired by Porras because his investigations had highlighted corrupt practices among those close to the president.