Press Freedom on Trial in Guatemala
The imprisonment and conviction of Guatemalan publisher José Rubén Zamora on fabricated money-laundering charges are part of a government-led campaign to silence independent journalism. When a government systematically undermines press freedom, all other freedoms are in jeopardy.
PARIS/MIAMI – July 29 marks the first anniversary of the arrest of Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora. As the founder and editor of the newspaper elPeriódico, Zamora spent decades uncovering political corruption before being arrested on fabricated money-laundering charges. In June, he was handed a six-year prison sentence, but the prosecution, insisting on a 40-year term, is expected to appeal. The harsher punishment, prosecutors say, would compensate those whose “name and reputation” have been tarnished by Zamora and his publication. Their real goal is to deter other journalists from following in Zamora’s footsteps.
The prosecution alleged that Zamora tried to launder the equivalent of $38,000, a donation he received to keep elPeriódico afloat. The newspaper, which Zamora founded in 1996, was forced to shut down in May after enduring nearly two decades of threats, intimidation, arbitrary judicial proceedings, and cyberattacks. Apart from Zamora, nine journalists who were associated with the newspaper have also been charged with obstructing justice. Fearing for their safety, most of them have fled the country. Two of Zamora’s lawyers have also been arrested and charged with submitting false evidence.
When representatives from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) managed to visit Zamora in prison in May, the 66-year-old publisher appeared physically and psychologically frail. He has lost 16 kilograms (35 pounds) as a result of being confined to a ten-square-meter cell in complete isolation with just one hour of access to sunlight per day. After enduring several episodes of physical and psychological torture, ranging from sleep deprivation to an insect infestation in his cell, he trusted only the food brought by his family during visiting days, which he stored in a cooler. But Zamora’s wife and children, fearing possible arrest, have since fled Guatemala.
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