Guatemala's former communications minister Alejandro Sinibaldi brought an "unlawful association" criminal case against journalist Juan Luis Font, director of the news radio show Con Criterio, in March 2022. (Luis Soto)

Guatemalan journalist Juan Luis Font leaves the country after former official accuses him of ‘unlawful association’

Guatemala City, April 6, 2022 — Guatemalan authorities should immediately dismiss criminal proceedings against journalist Juan Luis Font, allow him to work freely without fear of reprisal, and stop using lawsuits to harass members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

In late March 2022, the country’s former communications minister Alejandro Sinibaldi brought a criminal case against Font, director of the news radio show Con Criterio, alleging that Font had unlawfully associated with former anti-corruption judge Erika Aifán and Font’s lawyer Carlos Paz, the journalist told CPJ via phone. If convicted, he faces between six and eight years in prison, according to the law.

Font told CPJ that he has not been formally notified of any charges but decided to leave Guatemala temporarily to work without facing harassment.

“Guatemalan authorities must not pursue criminal proceedings filed against Juan Luis Font and let him return home safely,” said Natalie Southwick, CPJ’s Latin America and the Caribbean program coordinator, in New York. “Judicial persecution against journalists is a mechanism of intimidation that should not be endorsed by the state.”

In the accusation, which CPJ reviewed, Sinibaldi alleges Font has a “pre-existing relationship” with Judge Aifán, who oversaw a corruption accusation case the former minister brought against the journalist in December 2021, where Sinibaldi claimed to have given the journalist around US$200,000 between 2012 and 2014 in payments, according to news reports.

The Guatemalan prosecutor’s office has not provided any official information about the 2021 case as it is “under reserve,” meaning only the presiding judge has access to information about it, according to a report by Guatemalan news website Soy 502. Font told CPJ he denies the allegations and has shared his income and expense information with authorities to show he does not believe there are irregularities in his financial statements.

A judge issued an order barring Font from leaving the country in December 2021, but dismissed it days later, Font told CPJ. Sinibaldi has been in pre-trial detention since 2020 on separate charges of unlawful association and money laundering.

In the March 2022 complaint, Sinibaldi includes interviews Font conducted with Aifán on his radio show and tweets from Font’s personal Twitter account, in which he commented on alleged harassment against the judge by “criminal groups,” as evidence of the alleged unlawful association. Aifán left Guatemala in February 2022, due to threats, according to news reports.

Juan Luis Pantaleon, a spokesperson for the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office, told CPJ via messaging app that both the 2022 and the 2021 cases are “under reserve,” and he therefore could not provide comment. CPJ attempted to contact Sinibaldi through his lawyer but was unable to reach him.