Outrage in Guatemala following arrest of journalist José Rubén Zamora Marroquín

Human rights organizations, journalist associations, and social movements have condemned Zamora’s arrest as political persecution for revealing several corruption cases and fraudulent businesses of the Alejandro Giammattei government

August 09, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
Journalist José Rubén Zamora Marroquín was arrested on July 29 for exposing the corruption cases of the Alejandro Giammattei government. Photo: El Periódico

The arbitrary and illegal arrest of Guatemalan journalist and founder and president of local newspaper El Periódico, José Rubén Zamora Marroquín, has sparked outrage in the Central American country. Various national and international human rights organizations, journalist associations, and social movements have condemned Zamora’s arrest as yet another attack on the freedom of press and freedom of expression by the far-right government of President Alejandro Giammattei. Many have harshly criticized the Giammattei administration and have called for Zamora’s immediate release.

At the end of the last month, on July 29, officials from the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) of the Public Ministry (MP) raided Zamora’s home and the offices of the media outlet in an alleged case of blackmail, influence peddling, and money laundering. While the raids were in progress at the newspaper’s offices, the agents of the National Civil Police (PNC) detained Zamora and transferred him from his residence to the courthouse. From there, he was sent to a provisional prison. Meanwhile, during the raid at El Periódico’s facilities, its staff was held by the authorities for around 16 hours without food or medicines.

Last Monday, on August 1, Zamora’s initial court hearing was suspended because the court did not receive the necessary documents about the case. According to some news reports, Zamora’s lawyers also did not have access to the documents detailing the charges against him last week. On August 8, the hearing resumed and Zamora appeared before the court.

In addition to Zamora, an FECI assistant prosecutor, Samari Carolina Gómez Díaz, was also arrested for her possible participation in the crime of disclosure of confidential information, related to Zamora.

Zamora and his newspaper El Periódico, founded in 1996, have maintained a critical position against corruption in the country, not only under the Giammattei government, but also under past governments. Some recent investigative reports revealed several corruption cases and fraudulent businesses of the current government. They were published in the newspaper’s El Peladero section under the names of “the Fable of the Ogre and the Little Blue Prince who wanted everything” and “the Fable of the Little Prince who wanted everything, everything, everything”. The person referred to in the reports is a 33-year-old businessman named Miguel Martínez, who has personal and business relations with President Giammattei and who, since the beginning, has been allegedly dictating government actions to his benefit.

The authorities said that his arrest had nothing to do with Zamora’s journalistic practice. “I want to make it clear that the arrest has no relation to his quality as a journalist, but to a possible act of money laundering in his capacity as a businessman,” said Rafael Curruchiche, head of the FECI. Nevertheless, various journalist associations and human rights organizations condemned Zamora’s arrest as political persecution, denouncing the authorities for trying to disguise it as a separate crime.

Several organizations criticized that the raid took place despite the fact that Zamora had precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In 2003, the IACHR had requested the Guatemalan state to adopt the necessary measures to protect the life and personal integrity of Zamora and then-director of the newspaper, Juan Luis Font, due to serious death threats.

Pedro Vaca, special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the IACHR, criticized that despite the precautionary measures, criminal proceedings were activated against Zamora in 2021. He called on the authorities to ensure compliance with judicial rights and guarantees.

National and international criticism

Zamora’s arrest received widespread national and international condemnation. On social networks, using hashtag #NoNosCallarán (#TheyWillNotShutUsUp), numerous human rights activists, political leaders and organizations issued press releases rejecting the actions of the the Public Ministry and criticized it for being completely subordinated to the Foundation Against Terrorism.

Manfredo Marroquin, founder of the Citizen Action civil society organization, emphasized that the case against Zamora was a revenge directed from the government and instrumentalized by the Public Ministry. “The Public Ministry has become a factory against opponents and has placed itself at the service of the government and against the investigation of the truth,” said Marroquin. “El Periódico has been a critical voice of the abuses of power committed by the government. It is a revenge against the media, and that is instrumentalized with the fabrication of cases,” he added.

“It is impossible that an independent criminal process will be carried out because all the justice bodies are captured. We must make a call to the conscience and to the voice of the citizenry so that it manifests itself against this attack on freedom of expression,” stressed Marroquín.

Rigoberta Menchú, Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist, also condemned the forced retention of El Periódico’s staff and its president Zamora. “Submitting a group of innocent people who have not committed any crime to involuntary confinement, holding them incommunicado and not allowing them to eat food, perform their physiological needs, rest, sleep and take delicate prescription medications for 16 hours, violates their human rights,” she said.

“It also represents a setback of more than 40 years that takes us back to the worst moments of forced disappearances and collective kidnappings characteristic of state terrorism, practiced by military dictatorships. Acts like this, after the signing of the Peace Agreements, should never be repeated, because at this rate, and due to the mentality and impunity of their intellectual and material authors, who inside and outside the State act in complicity, we are dangerously approaching the commission of new crimes against humanity,” added Menchú.

Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, Advocacy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, New York, also spoke out against abuse of power to silence the press. “Guatemalan authorities should immediately release and drop any criminal charges against journalist José Rubén Zamora, president of El Periódico. Judicial persecution against journalists is a mechanism of intimidation, and authorities in Guatemala need to put an end to their campaign to intimidate and threaten the press,” she said in a statement.

The International Press Institute (IPI), the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFKHR), along with a dozen other organizations condemned the escalation of pressure on the media in Guatemala, and called for Zamora’s release.

National days of mobilization

Last Thursday, on August 4, over 20 civil society, human rights, Indigenous, peasant and social organizations called for national days of mobilization on August 9 and 11 against corruption, impunity, high cost of living, in defense of democracy, and in solidarity with journalist Zamora.

Daniel Pascual, a member of the Peasant Unity Committee, in a press conference, explained that the protest actions had been called to denounce the alarming situation and starvation wages in the countryside, the high cost of living and increasing poverty, the rise in the price of public transportation, fertilizers, corn, medicines and healthcare services, among others.

With regard to Zamora’s arrest, Pascual said that “the message is key and direct: silence and violate the right to expression. We understand it because the Indigenous and peasant communities have always been subjected to permanent repression.”

The organizations called for demonstrations and marches in several regions of the country on August 9. Meanwhile, a massive concentration had been called for in the capital, Guatemala City, on August 11, against the cooptation of the State.

Human rights violation in Guatemala

According to reports, corruption in Guatemala has reached unprecedented levels under the government of Giammattei, which has been punishing prosecutors and judges investigating organized crime, and harassing and attacking journalists.

At least five Guatemalan journalists from different media outlets are currently in exile. More than a dozen former FECI prosecutors, judges and human rights activists have fled the country over complaints and arrest warrants issued against them by the FECI.

According to a recent report issued by the Observatory of the Association of Journalists of Guatemala (APG), 66 acts of restrictions, violence or aggression against journalists and the media were recorded in the first half of this year.

In the light of the crackdown, in June, the IACHR added Guatemala to its list of countries committing serious human rights violations.