Meet the journalists defying a widening crackdown on press freedom in Guatemala

*By Gretel Kahn. Originally published by the Reuters Institute.

Twenty-seven years after its launch, Guatemalan newspaper elPeriódico published its last edition on May 15. Its final front page depicted a person entering a large dark maze with the words #DecimosNOalPoder (“We say NO to power”).

A few days before, the newspaper said it had been worn down by government pressures. Its founder, José Rúben Zamora, has been in jail since July 2022 under unsubstantiated charges of alleged money laundering, blackmail and influence peddling. Nine of the newspaper's journalists are under investigation and four of its lawyers have been arrested, with two still in jail.

newspaper cover showing a person entering a labyrinthIn his latest column from prison, Zamora writes that he will continue to stand for press freedom in the country. “Despite the fatigue, the severe adverse conditions, the humiliation, and the taunting, I will not cease in my fight for freedom and democracy in Guatemala. Without press freedom, there is no democracy," he writes.

Guatemala has experienced a gradual decline of press freedom since Alejandro Giammattei became president in 2020. Before his election, the country stood at number 116 in the RSF's World Press Freedom Index. Three years later, Guatemala had fallen to the 127th spot. Since taking office, Giammattei has displayed a hostile attitude towards the media. According to the Journalists Association of Guatemala, more than 380 attacks against journalists and their work were recorded in the country between 2020 and 2022.

Journalists in the country have also been drowned in lawsuits, ranging from defamation cases to psychological violence against women. With Guatemala’s freedom of the press taking a nosedive and after the elPeriódico’s shutdown, I spoke to four Guatemalan journalists still standing for press freedom in the country.

A void left behind

The closure of elPeriódico was a death foretold. Since Zamora was arrested, the newspaper was struggling with increased pressures from the government, and this forced the newspaper to halt its print edition in November 2022. In a statement explaining the decision, the editorial board said that it was due to “repression, intimidation, expansion of the commercial boycott, illegal raids, arrests and team members in custody or forced to leave the country in recent weeks, due to the current context of our country.”

The last months of elPeriódico were marked by difficulty, but also by hope, said a journalist who worked at the newspaper and who requested to remain anonymous, as he is one of the journalists being investigated by the government. “These last few months were complicated, but we kept going,” he said.

“It feels like a vacuum,” the journalist said.  “We are losing a news organization that was very important in Guatemala. It was a pioneer in investigative journalism. When no one else was doing investigative journalism, elPeriódico was. It opened the way for other media to follow suit.”

Fighting the good fight

The remaining independent news organizations are now concerned about the precedent the trial against Zamora sets. They mourn the loss of one of Guatemala’s beacons of independent press.

Nelton Rivera is the founder of Prensa Comunitaria Km 169, a news agency in Guatemala with a community and multidisciplinary approach, funded by philanthropic and international foundations. The newsroom employs over 20 people and works with 40 contributors nationwide, most of them from Indigenous communities.

Rivera says the arrest of Zamora and the closure of elPeriódico represent a regression to authoritarian rule in the country. “It is the use of the justice system to fabricate express cases, to punish, to imprison, [and] to criminally prosecute. It's an exemplary punishment,” he said. “What they're trying to show us is that if we don’t align with the regime, we're going to go through the same things this newspaper is going through.”

Alejandra Gutiérrez Valdizán is the editor of investigative news outlet Agencia Ocote, a newsroom of around a dozen journalists funded with the support of NGOs and foundations. She described the current period as part of an “authoritarian wave” in the region. “The feeling when I talk to colleagues and editors of other news outlets is of helplessness, defeat, and a lot of frustration,” she said. “There's also a feeling of great fear and instability, because in some ways elPeriódico represented a lot, symbolically.”

Journalists protesting censorship

Guatemalan journalists during demonstration in Guatemala City in 2021. Photo: Courtesy


Francisco Rodríguez is the editor of the news site Plaza Pública, a newsroom of also around a dozen journalists mostly funded by the Universidad Rafael Landívar. Francisco says that the case against Zamora goes beyond Zamora himself and his newspaper. “During the hearings and during the trial, they have let it be known that they are targeting more journalists and more news outlets,” he said. “They maintain a narrative that this is not about controlling free speech, but it is. They know the message they're sending, they know the repercussions.”

Not just a single case

The case against Zamora is not the first instance of a journalist detained in the country during the Giammattei government.

In September 2020, Guatemalan police arrested journalist Anastasia Mejía on criminal charges. These included sedition and arson, connected to her coverage of a demonstration against the mayor of Joyabaj, a town in Guatemala with a population of around 80,000. She remained in custody for five weeks, before being released under house arrest. Criminal charges were dropped a year after her arrest.

Journalist Robinson Ortega was arrested in June 2022 while covering a demonstration against the Municipality of Siquinalá. According to local reporting, Ortega was taken to court after documenting an misuse of power by agents against a group of women. His charges were dropped a few days later.

Again in 2022, journalist Carlos Choc faced criminal charges based on a complaint from 13 police officers who accused the journalist of “instigation to commit a crime,” after he reported on a demonstration against mining activities in October 2021. He was exonerated from all charges a year later. In 2022, criminal charges related to corruption against journalist Juan Luis Font forced the journalist to leave the country in exile.

“They are using the law to validate a decision already made,” says Rodríguez. The use of the law as a weapon against journalism is a phenomenon that has become more common and complex: Journalists are no longer just being arrested for defamation suits, but the whole gamut of the law is being used to silence them.

In Guatemala, for example, criminal lawsuits have been filed against journalists accused of committing psychological violence against women under the Law Against Femicide. “What we are seeing is the ultimate depiction of a co-opted state and a co-opted justice system punishing Guatemalan journalism, especially independent journalism,” Rivera said.

Keeping journalism alive

Gutiérrez Valdizán said the current environment for journalists is “a brutal setback.” Government officials refuse to make themselves available for interviews or don’t allow journalists to ask questions at press conferences. “This going back, this crushing, this imposition of fear had never been experienced before,” she said. “We see direct strategies for discrediting and criminalizing journalists.”

This criminalization has made sources afraid to speak to the media. Since the beginning of Giammattei's administration in 2020, more than 30 justice operators, lawyers, journalists and human rights activists have left the country due to alleged persecution against them.

Journalists at Prensa Comunitaria have already experienced a number of difficulties while reporting on Indigenous and environmental issues. Since the news outlet started 12 years ago, Rivera said he has seen journalists being insulted on social media and criminalized for doing their job. He also said that the transnational companies they report on have managed to co-opt local members of the judiciary.

Rivera said they established a relationship with the prosecutor's office when their journalists were taken to court. But the scale of the attacks they have seen in the most recent years is unprecedented and concerning. “Now we are dealing with something that’s much bigger,” he said.

Another threat to independent journalism in the country is funding. A 2021 law that seeks to regulate NGOs in the country allows the government to deregister any non-governmental organisation that has “violated the public order,” and requires organizations to disclose all foreign funding. This law, which has been adopted in different forms by other authoritarian countries like Nicaragua, allows governments to monitor the finances of independent news organisations supported by foreign benefactors.

“Non-commercial or independent media are under the NGO law for being an association,” Gutiérrez Valdizán said. “So you have to deliver an unimaginable amount of paperwork and you have to have a person in charge of giving information: the bureaucratic issues have tripled.” She explained that while they try to depend less on foreign funds, the economic situation in the country forces them to depend on them: “The law on NGOs affects us in the sense that they ask for a huge amount of documentation, paperwork and reports, which calls for an enormous time investment for the administrative team.”

Nicaragua has sentenced a newspaper publisher for money laundering charges and has driven journalists and civil society members to exile, with virtually no independent news outlets operating from inside the country. Many in Guatemala are concerned their country may follow their neighbor's playbook. “What we are seeing today is a replica of Nicaragua, but at a much faster pace,” Rivera said.

A respite in regime change?

The closure of elPeriódico is taking place against the backdrop of an upcoming election on June 25. While President Giammattei is barred from running for reelection, journalists are concerned about the integrity of the election and about the future of press freedom in the country. Guatemala’s election authority has barred a number of candidates from running in the 2023 presidential elections on “dubious grounds,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Upcoming elections have not yet given any respite to those who continue to defend press freedom in the country. All the journalists I spoke to see the current electoral race as a continuation of the current system. “It is the continuity of the same model,” Rivera, from Prensa Comunitaria, said.  “We don't see a candidacy that could represent a break from this alliance.”

The alliance Rivera refers to is what many in the country call the ‘Pacto de Corruptos’ [pact of corrupt people]: An agreement among businessmen, politicians and the military to stop or reverse investigations against them.

My sources say that all of the candidates running for the presidency represent a continuation of the system that has vilified the media.  Two of the frontrunners, Zury Ríos and Sandra Torres, are family members of former presidents. Notably, Ríos is the daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, whose tenure saw one of the bloodiest periods in the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War. Torres, on the other hand, is a former First Lady of Guatemala.

Even political newcomers like presidential candidate Carlos Pineda, who’s leading some of the polls, wouldn’t change anything as he come arrive to power without a party behind him, meaning that Congress would likely create a political stalemate. Pineda’s candidacy is at risk, due to an alleged series of irregularities when the party presented its candidates.

“I still see the future looking a little bleak for Guatemala,” said the journalist from elPeriódico I spoke to. “I even think that press freedom in Guatemala could get worse, depending on who wins this election.”

Building alliances

While the future looks challenging, Rodríguez from Plaza Pública said he has never seen so much solidarity amongst media organizations. “There is a trace of hope in solidarity,” he said. “In other words, we also understood the lessons from Nicaragua and El Salvador, and we're trying to build alliances to help each other.”

One of the fruits of those alliances is Guatemala Leaks, an independent and secure platform to confidentially share information of public interest which was created by Guatemalan news outlets. Investigations based on leaks are defined by a board of editors (one for each of the five news outlets) and a team is created to prepare the story, with an editor and one or two reporters.

Another project is called La Linterna, a fact-checking collaborative project against disinformation in the upcoming general elections. Five news outlets are involved in the project which, in addition to fact-checking, they also verify candidates' speeches as well as detect hoaxes.

Perhaps the most important joint initiative is “No Nos Callarán” [They will not shut us up], an alliance of Guatemalan news outlets created to protest against the judicial persecution of elPeriódico colleagues and to resist the overall persecution against the press in the country.

“These alliances are very important,” Gutiérrez Valdizán said. “[But] I also believe it’s important to build alliances with citizens. One of the sad things for me is that this whole debacle is happening and citizens don't know much about it, because it seems alien to them.”

“I hope that elPeriodico can relaunch in the future. Independent media are important for democracy. Without them, we'd be living in tyranny,” the journalist who worked for elPeriódico told me.

Despite this grim landscape, none of the journalists I spoke to are considering leaving the profession. “There is a decision by journalists to continue doing the job,” Rivera said. “They know the reality. They know how adverse this type of system is and how unfair it can be many times. But there is a conviction to continue doing the job.”