One of Guatemala’s most high-profile journalists was sentenced on Wednesday money laundry AND sentenced to six Years in prison, in a trial denounced by defenders of human rights and freedom of speech as another sign of the deterioration of the rule of law.
The journalist, José Rubén Zamora, was tried on charges of financial wrongdoing that prosecutors said focused on his business, not his journalism. He was captured for blackmail and influence dealing and fined approximately $40,000.
Mr. Zamora was the founder and editor of elPeriódico, a major Guatemalan newspaper that regularly investigated government corruption, including allegations involving the current president, Alejandro Giammattei, and the attorney general, María Consuelo Porras.
For press freedom and civil rights activists in Guatemala, Wednesday’s verdict and conviction, handed down by a jury, were another blow to the country’s shaky democratic health as the government and its allies repeatedly targeted key institutions and independent news outlets.
Mr Zamora, 66, denied any wrongdoing and accused the government of trying to silence his critics.
“We have a dictatorship,” he told reporters during a short break before the verdict was pronounced inside a courtroom in Guatemala City, the capital. “A veiled, multi-party, tyrannical dictatorship”.
Mr. Zamora faced several more years in prison, but the judges felt there was insufficient evidence to support the other charges.
Rafael Curruchiche, who heads the special prosecutor’s office against impunity that handled the case, told reporters Wednesday that he will appeal the judges’ decision and seek a 40-year prison sentence.
“If he said he was fighting corruption, now he’s part of that corruption,” Curruchiche said. “He IS corrupt.”
Press freedom groups have condemned the outcome of the trial.
Mr. Zamora’s conviction serves “as stark testimony to the erosion of free speech in the country and the desperate attempts by President Alejandro Giammattei’s government to criminalize journalism,” said Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director of the Committee for the protection of journalists in New York.
The trial comes as the country heads into presidential elections this month that have already been plagued by irregularities, with four opposition candidates disqualified by the courts.
“The rule of law is violated,” said Ana María Méndez, director of Central America at WOLA, a Washington-based research institute. The case of Mr. Zamora represents you, you added before the verdict, the umpteenth “step towards the consolidation of a dictatorship” in Guatemala.
Unlike other Central American countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador, however, where even democracy has been eroded, power is not concentrated in one family or one individual, Ms Méndez said. In Guatemala, she added, “authoritarianism is exercised by illicit networks made up of the economic elite, the military elite and organized crime in collusion with the political class.”
During his tenure at the helm of elPeriódico, Mr. Zamora was sued dozens of times by the government, mainly for libel, due to the newspaper’s coverage. But his most serious legal confrontation with the authorities began in July, when he was held in custody and charged with crimes.
As part of the prosecution’s case, elPeriódico’s bank accounts were frozen, hampering its finances, before it closed its doors permanently last month.
The star witness in the case was a former banker, Ronald Giovanni García Navarijo, who told prosecutors that Mr. Zamora had asked him to launder 300,000 Guatemalan quetzales, or nearly $40,000. He also claimed that Mr. Zamora forced him to place paid annual advertisements in the paper to avoid receiving unflattering coverage.
But the prosecution has not presented any evidence to show that Mr. Zamora obtained the money illegally. Most of the funds, which Mr. Zamora said went to pay the salaries of the paper’s employees, came from a businessman who did not want his connection to elPeriódico revealed for fear of reprisals.
His defense has been hampered by various steps taken by prosecutors and by a far-right organization, the Foundation Against Terrorism, which supports the attorney general. Critics say he tried to intimidate some of Mr Zamora’s lawyers.
It reviewed nine defense attorneys and at least four were charged with obstruction of justice for their roles in the case.
“Zamora’s defense was hampered from day one by a revolving door of defense attorneys,” said Stephen Townley, legal director of the TrialWatch initiative at the Clooney Foundation for Justice, a rights group. Some of those attorneys, he added, “appeared to lack access to their predecessors’ materials.”
A judge who had presided over the case early in the trial did not allow Mr. Zamora to present any witnesses and rejected most of the evidence he tried to present, deeming it irrelevant.
Mr. Zamora’s son, José Carlos Zamora, who is also a journalist, called the trial a “political persecution”.
For his part, Mr. Giammattei, referring to the case, said that being a journalist does not give a person the “right to commit criminal acts”.
However, his administration has been accused by human rights groups of using the justice system to target anyone who questions his rule. Corruption and human rights cases have stalled and the justice system has been “hijacked” by a network of corrupt actors, according to one report by WOLA.
Since 2021, nearly three dozen judges, anti-corruption prosecutors and their lawyers have fled Guatemala, as have 22 journalists who say they have been threatened because of their work.
When elPeriódico was founded in 1996, Guatemala was entering a more promising period after a brutal civil war that lasted nearly four decades and left hundreds of thousands dead or missing. For many weary Guatemalans, there was a sense that democracy was gaining momentum and that the government would govern with transparency.
An international team of UN-backed investigators worked for 12 years alongside the Guatemalan judiciary to expose deception among the country’s elite, including top government officials and businessmen, before being expelled from the country in 2019 by the previous president, which he was investigating.
“What we see today is a system that wants to continue to protect” criminal behavior, said Daniel Haering, a policy analyst in Guatemala City.
Mr Zamora’s case and the disappearance of his newspaper have set back efforts to hold the government accountable for its actions, said Ms Méndez, of WOLA.
“Who will tell the truth now in Guatemala?” she said. “There will be a huge void left.”
The country is preparing for national elections on June 25, which civil rights groups say have already been tarnished.
Among the opposition candidates barred from running was Carlos Pineda, a conservative populist, who had pledged to fight corruption and who a recent poll showed had risen to the top of the table. Guatemala’s high court removed him from the race on charges that his party’s methods of choosing him as its candidate had violated electoral law.
Mr. Zamora’s case has also ensnared reporters simply for covering him. Eight journalists, editors and columnists are under investigation on charges of obstruction of justice after writing about the trial for elPeriódico. Most have left Guatemala.
Since Giammattei took office in January 2020, the Guatemalan Association of Journalists has documented 472 cases of harassment, physical assault, intimidation and censorship against the press.
On Wednesday, Mr. Zamora made it clear that he would appeal the verdict and take his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States. “All my rights have been violated,” he said in a closing statement in court.