The Washington Post
Fear and loathing in Guatemala
The government’s censoring of a newspaper shows it is afraid of the truth.
“THIS IS not a case against my father, it is a systematic attack against freedom of expression and democracy. They started with the activists, continued on to the prosecutors and now they are starting to pursue journalists.”
That’s the truth about the recent arrest of renowned Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, articulated eloquently by his son, Ramón Zamora. In Guatemala, a country rife with corruption and government impunity, truth is hard to find. José Rubén Zamora, president and founder of the Guatemalan newspaper El Periódico, is one of the most important tellers of it. “Since I started as a journalist in 1989, I’ve denounced that we live in a narcoklepto-dictatorship that has us kidnapped and cowered,” Mr. Zamora told the crowd that gathered late last week to watch security forces escort him to the tribunal building. There, Mr. Zamora was spuriously charged with moneylaundering, blackmail and influencepeddling. Guatemalan authorities also raided El Periódico’s offices, a move the Association of Guatemalan Journalists said was meant to censor Saturday’s print edition.
Rafael Curruchiche, head of the Guatemalan anti-impunity office, claimed Mr. Zamora’s arrest “has no relation in his capacity as a journalist” but rather “his capacity as a businessman.” Mr. Curruchiche offered no evidence to support this dubious assertion. Guatemala’s justice system has conveniently not yet provided any, either: Mr. Zamora’s appearance before a judge was canceled Monday, apparently because his case file was unavailable.
It’s exactly this kind of nontransparency that Mr. Zamora has spent his career trying to fight and for which he has been brutally targeted before. Since its founding in 1996, El Periódico has become well known for publishing investigations into the Guatemalan government, including into corruption allegations in President Alejandro Giammattei’s administration. Mr. Zamora has won numerous international awards for combating censorship and advocating for press freedom. It’s work he does at great personal risk: In 2003, gang members held Mr. Zamora hostage in his own home and beat his sons. In 2008, Mr. Zamora was drugged, abducted, robbed, beaten and left for dead.
Mr. Zamora’s arrest is only the latest and most brazen example of the Guatemalan government’s assaults on press freedom. Mr. Giammattei’s administration has “targeted the media through bellicose rhetoric and false accusations,” according to Human Rights Watch, while government investigations into threats against, harassment of and murders of journalists go nowhere. Several top Guatemalan officials, including Mr. Curruchiche, are on the State Department’s list of “corrupt and undemocratic actors” in Central America for obstructing investigations into government corruption. The Guatemalan government has arrested numerous anticorruption prosecutors and judges. With Mr. Zamora’s arrest, it sends the unacceptable message that journalists are next.
“Let me die if necessary, but let there be justice,” Mr. Zamora said in a video from jail tweeted on Saturday. He has been on a hunger strike to protest his persecution, once again demonstrating his courage. If Guatemala wants to retain any semblance of democratic legitimacy, Mr. Zamora must be released and his charges dropped. He has for so long, on so many occasions, spoken up against the Guatemalan government. Now, the world must speak up on Mr. Zamora’s behalf.