When Guatemalan police arrested José Rubén Zamora in July 2022, it marked the latest salvo in a decades-long campaign of harassment against the pioneering Guatemalan investigative journalist, who won CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 1995.
Zamora, who founded elPeriódico in 1996 and still serves as president of the newspaper, was arrested on July 29. He remains in pre-trial detention in the Mariscal Zavala prison in Guatemala City, as prosecutors conduct a criminal investigation on charges of money laundering, blackmail, and influence peddling.
Zamora, his family, and his colleagues have claimed that the case is retaliation for elPeriódico’s reporting on alleged corruption involving Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras.
Zamora’s son, José Zamora, who is also a journalist and currently works at Exile Content Studio, a Spanish-language entertainment and media firm, in Miami, spoke to CPJ in a video interview about his father’s case and the current state of press freedom and democracy in Guatemala.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In response to CPJ’s request for comment, Juan Luis Pantaleon, a spokesperson for the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office, said in an email that the case against Zamora is “not about any political persecution or any attack” on freedom of expression. CPJ emailed the office of the executive secretary of the presidency but did not receive a reply.
This is not the first time your father has faced harassment from Guatemalan officials.
José Zamora: My father has a career of more than 30 years in journalism, and he was the first journalist to start doing investigative journalism, with his team, in Guatemala. This has led to a series of attacks and harassment and persecution over the years: defamation campaigns, fiscal terrorism, and many others.
For example, they said the newspaper hasn’t been paying taxes for years. They came to audit the newspaper but did not find anything.
Then there were the lawsuits. At one point, there were 195 spurious lawsuits against my father and the outlet, some of them even misusing important laws, like the law against femicide, which is intended to protect women who face abuse from their partners. Several officials sued my father using this law, which is a total aberration.
And then you have the commercial boycott. The government and the president have threatened influential business people and basically prohibited them from advertising in the newspaper.
My father has also been subjected to threats, kidnappings, and bombings. In 2003, there was a kidnapping. They entered my parent’s house — my siblings and I still lived with my parents at the time — and held us hostage for about three hours.
In 2008, they tried again to kill my dad. They kidnapped him coming out of a restaurant, took him away, beat him, injected him with something to kill him, and then left him. Luckily that place was so cold that he got hypothermia. And hypothermia was, in the end, what saved him. Firefighters brought him in, thinking he was a corpse, and when they began to prepare for the autopsy, they realized that he had vital signs [and treated him].
But this imprisonment is totally new. They had been trying to do this for the last year, but it did not happen until now. Several times, different sources warned us that they were fabricating cases against him.
How is your father?
He is in an isolated cell, and in general, he is in good health and in good spirits. He wants to fight and continue doing journalism even while there. At some point, he did have some health problems — his cell was filled with bedbugs, which bit him and gave him an allergic reaction. But now he is generally in good health and is much better.
What was the newspaper publishing before your father was arrested?
President Giammattei has been in power for 130 weeks, more or less, and elPeriódico has published 130 investigations. So there has not been a week without reporting on some act of corruption in his administration.
In the country in general, Giammattei has led a systematic attack on democracy and has persecuted anyone who is considered a critic. The most recent of these systematic attacks on democracy is this persecution of the press. In the case of elPeriódico and my dad, things got worse in November. The newspaper published an investigation titled “La Trama Rusa” (“The Russian Plot”) on how the president made a business deal with a Russian company in which the state of Guatemala granted a concession to develop a mine, and that the president was [allegedly] paid for it. That was the breaking point.
Can you tell us more about your father’s case? What
is he accused of?
In Guatemala, legal processes generally take years in terms of investigation and processes. But [the legal case against Zamora] was all set up in 72 hours. It based on a complaint from a “denunciante” [a man Zamora asked to help him but who later informed on the journalist].
My father is accused of money laundering and blackmail. What happened is that a serious businessman gave my dad 300,000 quetzales [US$38,050] to support the newspaper. My father contacted the [man who became the] “denunciante” [to put the money into his business’s bank account] and give him a check from his company. My dad wanted that check deposited into the account of Aldea Global, the company that owns elPeriódico. But when my father goes to deposit the check, [it bounced].
[Editor’s note: According to an interview with Zamora’s lawyer in Central American online outlet El Faro, the reason that Zamora did not deposit the donation directly into Aldea Global’s account, but asked the man who became the “denunciante” to write him a check from his account, was because this triangulation helped him protect the identity of the donor.]
[For] blackmail, the Public Prosecutor’s Office said that the whistleblower believed that my father’s funds had come from blackmailing someone, but there is no proof.
Can you tell us why your father has to spend 90 days in pretrial detention?
The judge gave the Public Prosecutor’s Office the maximum amount of time for the investigation, three months, and ordered [my father to] pretrial detention. My father meets all the requirements to be granted “substitute measures” [similar to parole] and be under house arrest. But they want him there in prison, because they want to humiliate him and make a public example of him. Even when they took him to the hearings, everything was excessive, as if they were taking one of the biggest organized crime bosses.
Everything has been very public, and this is just an example in a series of systematic attacks against democracy and against the press. My dad is an example, but the broader message is for everyone, and that is that they are going to persecute any critical voice.
How are elPeriódico’s journalists working at the moment?
They all believe deeply in their work, its importance for democracy, and in making a better country. So they continue to work, but it’s very challenging when the newsroom’s leader is gone. On the other hand, there is a financial issue. For almost 15 days, they froze the accounts. The journalists did not receive their salaries for almost three weeks. And that demonstrates a lot: not only the journalists’ strength and determination, and conviction because they continued to work in a very tense situation, but also without any income. Little by little, this is getting resolved, but it’s complicated.
What do journalists in Guatemala need in order to do their work freely?
What they need is freedom. A decent state should see the press as an ally. The truth is that they can’t know everything that happens in all state institutions. They should be transparent, but the state is massive. So the state should support and have a decent relationship with the press and allow them to do their job, because it would even allow them to stop corruption.
What do you want now for your father’s case?
The main request is that he should be released. The evidence is weak, and they haven’t been able to prove anything.
The second point: If they are going to detain him, they should grant him substitute measures, and he should be able to wait for the process to take place under house arrest.
And thirdly, they should not persecute the newspaper as a company. In doing so, they have attacked not only press freedom, but also all the journalists and the people who work at elPeriódico. They also went after the financial director Flora Silva and imprisoned her. She is another person who, at minimum, should also be under substitute measures and house arrest.