New York, November 17, 2017--Guatemalan authorities should immediately release community reporter Jerson Antonio Xitumul Morales and drop all charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Local police on November 11 arrested Xitumul, a reporter with the independent digital media outlet Prensa Comunitaria, in Guatemala's eastern Izabal province, Jorge Santos, the head of the national human rights organization Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala, told CPJ. The journalist had been covering a local fishermen guild's protests in the area against the Guatemalan Nickel Company since early 2017, Santos said.
A court yesterday in Izabal's El Estor municipality charged Xitumul with incitement to commit crimes, threats, and illegal detention related to his alleged participation in protests on May 4, according to Santos and the online news site El Periodico.
Both Santos and Andrea Ixchíu, a colleague of Xitumul's at Prensa Comunitaria, told CPJ that Xitumul was covering the protests for the outlet, clearly identified himself as a reporter, and was not participating in the demonstrations.
"Covering protests is not a crime," said CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney. "Journalists in Guatemala must be able to report on issues of public interest without fearing retaliation. We call on Guatemalan authorities to immediately release Jerson Xitumul Morales and drop all charges against him."
The El Estor mayor's office did not respond to CPJ's calls and emailed request for comment.
Local officials and mining company employees had harassed Xitumul since May for his coverage of the fishermen guild's protests against the mining company, according to Ixchíu. The fishermen blame the company for environmental damage around the area's Lake Izabal, Ixchíu said.
A local judge, Edgar Aníbal Arteaga López, on August 11 originally issued an arrest warrant for Xitumul, along with another Prensa Comunitaria journalist who had also covered the demonstrations, and five people involved in organizing the protests, according to news reports. Local authorities have arrested two people who were involved in organizing the protests in addition to Xitumul, Santos said.
Yesterday, Arteaga ordered Xitumul to remain at the preventive detention prison in Puerto Barrios, the Izabal provincial capital, until his next hearing, scheduled for February 2018, according to Ixchíu.
Ixchíu told CPJ that Xitumul's colleagues and family are concerned for his safety in the prison, which also houses gang members.
In a video interview filmed outside the courtroom after yesterday's hearing, Xitumul said he was "paying the price for exposing the truth."