The Washington Post
Guatemala’s campaign against journalists continues
Today is as good a day as any for Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei to let my father come home. José Rubén Zamora has been in prison in Guatemala for 228 days. He has been charged with money laundering, blackmail and influence peddling and is awaiting trial. His real crime, however, has been investigating and publicizing 144 cases of corruption during the first 144 weeks of Giammattei’s term.
But the persecution of my father was not merely the result of some vendetta by the well-connected. It is part of a coordinated campaign to crush journalism in the country.
Ever since Guatemala emerged from military dictatorship and adopted a democratic constitution in 1985, each administration has outdone its predecessor when it comes to corrupt practices. Giammattei’s government, inaugurated in 2020, has stayed true to form, keeping the country near the bottom of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. But his administration has further distinguished itself from previous ones by conducting systematic attacks on the democratic institutions of Guatemala, persecuting anyone who tries to fight corruption or promote liberty and the rule of law.
In the late afternoon of July 29, 2022, police raided my father’s home. My children, who are U.S. citizens, were visiting their grandparents at the time and were illegally detained for over six hours. My father, a 5-foot-9, 140-pound, 66-year-old man, would have peacefully turned himself in if required by the authorities. Instead, after midnight that same night, he was transported in a caravan of pickup trucks to Guatemala’s main court building — a show of force usually reserved for big narcos — even though the raid yielded no evidence.
The case against my father has been rife with irregularities.
By law, people under arrest must have their first judicial hearing within 24 hours. Instead, my father was transferred to a city prison, and his first hearing was scheduled for 72 hours after his arrest. But even that hearing didn’t happen. Authorities claimed no police vehicle was available to transport him. His first hearing took place a full 10 days later.
In the 13 days after the arrest, prosecutors wouldn’t share the case file with my father’s defense lawyers, who received it mere hours before the hearing. That’s when we first learned of the charges being leveled against him. In addition, authorities have been harassing and persecuting my father’s lawyers while making every effort to exclude evidence that disproves their case.
This is business as usual under Giammattei. Attorney General María Consuelo Porras Argueta and Rafael Curruchiche, head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, have been hounding journalists, prosecutors and judges with arbitrary and abusive criminal proceedings for years. Some of the highest-profile judges, prosecutors, activists and journalists have been targeted by the regime. There are more than 25 lawyers and former jurists and more than 12 journalists in exile. Both Porras and Curruchiche have been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
Earlier this month, the State Department expressed President Biden’s concern over the accusations against my father and other journalists and urged “the Guatemalan justice system to reject the criminalization of independent journalists and support independent journalism as one of the foundations of a secure and prosperous democratic society.”
The government has insisted that my father’s detention is not related to his work as a journalist. Yet last year, the authorities raided the newspaper he founded, El Periódico, and prevented its employees from contacting anyone for over 12 hours. They froze El Periódico’s bank accounts, and just last month, a Guatemalan judge ordered the investigation of eight more of its journalists as part of a new charge of “conspiracy to obstruct justice” against my father for alleged malicious reporting on prosecutors, judges and other members of Guatemala’s justice system.
For over 26 years, El Periódico’s work has brought down members of Congress, cabinet ministers and even presidents. My father’s paper has made a difference in Guatemalan society, and his work has been recognized around the world. All of those achievements have come at a steep price. My father, our family and his team have braved governmentrun defamation campaigns, car explosions, illegal raids, kidnappings, death threats and assassination attempts.
Imprisoning my father, Giammattei’s regime had three goals: to punish him, to shut down El Periódico and to send a message to journalists all over the country that, in Guatemala, journalism is a crime.
It has failed in all three. My father still occasionally writes from prison. Even though El Periódico was forced to stop printing and lay off over 130 members of its team, it still publishes investigative reporting online. Finally, persecution has strengthened ties between journalists from different news organizations, who, putting mission over competition, have kept denouncing the corruption and abuses by the regime.
Even after all this time in solitary confinement, my father stands tall and undefeated. He knew what was coming but decided to stay in his country anyway, consistent with his values and the way he has lived his life. Standing up for what is right is what gives him peace of mind and hope in the dark cell in which he still spends 23 hours every day.
President Giammattei should heed President Biden’s warning and stop persecuting journalists, and he should release my father now.