Local police on November 11, 2017, arrested Jerson Antonio Xitumul Morales, 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 protests by a local fishermen’s guild against the Guatemalan Nickel Company since early 2017, Santos said.
A court in Izabal’s El Estor municipality on November 16 charged Xitumul with incitement to commit crimes, threats, and illegal detention related to his alleged participation in protests on May 4, 2017, according to Santos and the news website El Periodico. Prosecutors claimed that the protesters briefly detained some mining company employees, according to news reports.
Both Santos and Andrea Ixchíu, a colleague of Xitumul’s at Prensa Comunitaria, told CPJ that Xitumul was covering the protests for the outlet, had clearly identified himself as a reporter, and was not participating in the demonstrations.
As of late 2017, the El Estor mayor’s office had not responded to CPJ’s calls and emailed request for comment.
Since May 2017, local officials and mining company employees had harassed Xitumul with threatening messages for his coverage of the protests, according to Ixchíu. The fishermen blame the company for environmental damage around the area’s Lake Izabal, Ixchíu said.
Representatives of the mining company denied in a letter to CPJ that company employees had harassed or threatened anyone.
A local judge originally issued an arrest warrant on August 11, 2017 for Xitumul, along with another Prensa Comunitaria journalist who 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.
At the November 16 hearing, a judge 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.
In a video interview filmed outside the courtroom after the hearing, Xitumul said he was “paying the price for exposing the truth.”
On November 21, the human rights section of the public prosecutor’s office announced it would open an investigation to determine if Xitumul’s detention violated his right to freedom of expression, according to news reports.
Ixchíu told CPJ that Xitumul’s colleagues and family are concerned for his safety in the prison, which also houses gang members.