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“Doing Journalism Is a Crime”: Guatemalan Publisher José Rubén Zamora Faces 40 Years Behind Bars

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Prominent Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora faces 40 years in prison in his sentencing hearing Wednesday for what press freedom and human rights groups say are inflated charges of money laundering. Zamora is the founder and president of the investigative newspaper El Periódico and has long reported on Guatemalan government corruption. El Periódico was forced to shut down last month after months of intensifying harassment and persecution from President Alejandro Giammattei’s right-wing government. The government has held Zamora “as a hostage” for nearly a year as part of its wider crackdown on the press, says his son José Carlos Zamora, a journalist based in Miami who is advocating for his father’s release.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We look now at how the internationally renowned Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora faces 40 years in prison at his verdict and sentencing hearing Wednesday in Guatemala City, after he was arrested on what press freedom and human rights groups say are trumped-up money laundering charges.

Zamora is the founder and president of the independent investigative Guatemalan newspaper El Periódico and for decades has reported on government corruption. International rights groups and the Guatemalan Association of Journalists say the case against him is politically motivated.

This is José Rubén Zamora speaking after his arrest last July. He’s been in prison since.

JOSÉ RUBÉN ZAMORA: [translated] They chased me and my children in the streets in a very dangerous way. My family had go into exile. My home was illegally raided. But they haven’t gone as far as now, with them formally arresting me. I don’t know how long the process will take. … This is a narco-klepto dictatorship. Four years ago, our apparent democracy was transformed, electing a president that is a thief who has been assaulting us for the past four years. Us, as Guatemalans, we don’t have the capacity to defend ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: After Zamora’s detention, El Periódico was forced to stop publication of its print edition. The newspaper then shuttered its online version May 15th, due to what the paper called judicial and financial harassment from the right-wing government of the Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. It signed off with a single headline in Spanish that translated to: “We say NO to Power, 1996-2023.” It had been publishing for 27 years.

Rights groups say Zamora has not received a fair trial under Guatemala’s Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, who is on a U.S. State Department list of “corrupt and undemocratic actors.”

For more on José Rubén Zamora and the sentencing tomorrow, we’re joined in Miami by his son, José Carlos Zamora, who is also a journalist.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with this, though under these very difficult circumstances. Tell us what happened to your father and what this sentencing means tomorrow in Guatemala City.

JOSÉ CARLOS ZAMORA: Hi, Amy. Good morning. And good morning, Juan. And thank you for having me and for paying attention to what’s happening in Guatemala.

Well, what happened is, my father has over a 30-year trajectory in doing investigative journalism in Guatemala. At El Periódico with his team, he has been doing it for 26 years. Specifically in the government of Alejandro Giammattei, in the first 144 weeks of the administration, he and his team published 144 stories and investigations into corruption about Giammattei. This led to this political persecution.

In Guatemala, there is a democratic façade, but the executive controls the judiciary. And they are using criminal law to persecute anybody who they consider a critical voice. The Giammattei administration has been systematically attacking all democratic institutions and persecuting anybody who had anything to do with fighting corruption, including the highest-profile judges, prosecutors, activists, and in the case of my father, journalists.

As you were saying, it’s incredible that the Public Ministry requested a 40-year sentence, which is — historically, there hasn’t been such a request for these types of cases. So, it’s really shameful and ridiculous. And it really shows clearly that it’s a political persecution. And when they arrested him and processed him, and with this sentence, what they want to send is a very clear message to all journalists in Guatemala, that in the country, doing journalism is a crime.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, José Carlos, could you talk, for those who are not familiar with the most recent history in Guatemala, after the peace accords — and it looked like Central America was heading in a better direction, and even the perpetrators of some of the genocide were tried. What has happened in recent years that allowed this resurgence of this right-wing government in your country?

JOSÉ CARLOS ZAMORA: Well, since '85, we started our new democratic era. We had the opportunity to start with a clean slate. But every four years, we changed government, and every government has been very corrupt. But in the last 10 years, we had — there was a big effort to fight corruption, and it was working. And when they saw, these different groups that are involved in corruption, saw that it was working, they all became allies, dismantled that effort. And not only they did dismantle it, but they started persecuting anybody who was involved in fighting corruption. And that's exactly what is happening now. And what you see is not only that they are persecuting anybody who was involved in fighting corruption, but now people who were involved in the highest-profile corruption cases and also human rights abuses during the war, they are being let free. So, you see a regression and a lot of repression.

This administration, the Giammattei administration, has not only been corrupt, but extremely repressive. There has never been — since 1985, there have never been so many Guatemalans in exile fleeing political persecution, from judges to prosecutors to journalists. The official number is around 40, but it’s estimated that it’s around 80 people who left the country because they were being politically persecuted. And the ones that didn’t leave are in prison and facing these ridiculous, really, processes, like in the case of my father. Not only was his case fabricated, but he has been made to go through a process that has been an absolute total violation of due process. And now he’s facing this sentence. We really expect him to be convicted, because the system is corrupt. And really, what we’re seeing is that the government of Alejandro Giammattei has him as a hostage.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk, José Carlos Zamora, about the past threats against your father? There’s been assassination threats, death threats, kidnapping threats. But what it means that they bring charges of money laundering against him now? And ultimately, what we’re talking about is this coming together of the elite and the governing elite, Giammattei, the pacto de corruptos, I think they are referred to, in Guatemala.

JOSÉ CARLOS ZAMORA: Yes, correct. It’s the use of the law to persecute critical voices and journalists and opposition. It’s really damaging to democracy and to the country. And that’s what we’re seeing. Before, when it came to journalists — and, for example, what you were mentioning about my father, throughout his 30-year career, he has been shot at, kidnapped. The entire family has been attacked and kidnapped. He has been — they attempted to assassinate him in 2008. There’s been car bombs. Everything you can imagine has happened.

But what we see is an evolution in how the government has become more sophisticated in attacking journalists. And this also comes from other repressive regimes. They copy each other, from the Philippines to Venezuela to Nicaragua to Guatemala. Before, they would do two things: attack a journalist’s credibility, because they know that’s the only asset a journalist has, and from the other side, they would do these death threats and assassination attempts. But then they discovered that killing journalists comes at a very high price. So, when you control the law and the judiciary, it’s much simpler to use the law to persecute anybody who you consider opposition. And that’s what they are doing.

In case — they started first with civil law, with these SLAPP lawsuits. But then they saw an even more efficient tool in criminal, because that allows them to have these trumped-up charges on money laundering, and that allows them to have an arrest warrant, to arrest a journalist and place him in jail. And it really changes everything. And it allows them to say, under this democratic façade, that it’s not about journalism, that it’s not about press freedom, but it’s about a criminal. So, it allows them to continue to attack the credibility of a journalist, but it also allows them to neutralize him, if you put them in prison. And it’s a very clear message to all other journalists in the country that they can come after anybody who continues to denounce corruption.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, José Carlos, how is your father doing in prison? Where’s he being held? What are the conditions of his detention? And have you spoken to him recently?

JOSÉ CARLOS ZAMORA: He’s in a prison that is a military base. He’s healthy. He’s in good spirits. But he’s been 319 days in prison today in what pretty much is solitary confinement. So, he spends 23 hours a day in solitary, in a very small cell that is in very bad shape.

So, the conditions aren’t very good, because the government really had three objectives when they arrested him. One was to punish him directly. He’s a pain for them. He has denounced all of their corrupt acts. So they really wanted to punish him directly, and that’s why they have him in such bad conditions in this tiny cell. The second was to shut down the newspaper, which they finally managed to do 11 months later, because they also started harassing and attacking advertisers. And the third point was to send this really clear message to all journalists in the country, that in Guatemala, doing journalism is a crime.

AMY GOODMAN: José Carlos, we just have about a minute, but what can the Biden administration do? I mean, you have these deals being made, especially with Northern Triangle countries, where the U.S. shores them up to stop immigration. Can you talk about that?

JOSÉ CARLOS ZAMORA: I think what — there needs to be two things. One is harder sanctions that really have teeth. Right? Like, that’s one thing. But from the other side, they should stop having these collaborations with them and just with the focus on migration, because it’s very nearsighted, because the true and the root cause of migration is corruption. It’s corruption and repression and violence, and that’s really what’s driving migration. And until that root cause isn’t addressed, people won’t stop migrating. So, you definitely can fund a military police that tries to stop people south of the border, but unless these root causes are addressed, people won’t stop coming to the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: José Carlos Zamora, we thank you so much for being with us, Guatemalan journalist based in Miami, the son of internationally renowned Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, who faces 40 years in prison at his sentencing on Wednesday, after being jailed for nearly a year on what press freedom and human rights groups say are trumped-up money laundering charges as political retaliation over exposés of government corruption in Guatemala. José Rubén Zamora is 66 years old. And we’ll report on what happens tomorrow in the courtroom in Guatemala City.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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