New ruling for contempt against the president bars journalist from leaving Guatemala, freezes assets

  • By
  • January 9, 2014

By Norma Garza

A court ordered Guatemalan journalist and director of newspaper elPeriódico José Rubén Zamora Marroquín not to leave the country. His bank accounts were also frozen.

The actions resulted from a criminal complaint against the journalist brought by Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina for “coercion, extortion, blackmail, violating the Constitution, and contempt.” The complaint is seen as an attack on freedom of expression by Guatemala’s highest authorities.

Zamora was notified of this new move against him on Jan. 6, which adds to previous charges brought by Vice-President Roxana Baldetti. Late last month, Zamora was ordered not “intimidate or disturb” Baldetti and to keep away from her home or workplace for a six-month period.

In response, Zamora countersued and brought charges against both officials for abuse of authority and falsifying a crime, stating that the country’s Constitution protects his criticism of them.

In a brief op-ed, Zamora wrote that Pérez Molina “states in his complaint that I asked him for US$1.5 million and that when he gently informed me that he couldn’t pay by way of his henchman Francisco Cuevas (the President’s Press Secretary) – somebody I have never even met – I sent an intermediary to him, whose name he omits to mention, to ask for US$30,000 per month. Apart from being artless thieves and gangsters, they are just amoral liars. In any event, they won’t shut me up.”

The order against Zamora includes an urgent measure ordering the journalist “immediately to cease any threatening action, intimidation, coercion against the integrity, security, image, and liberty of the aggrieved and the victim, transmitted either verbally or in writing.” The measure attempts to put an end to elPeriódico’s published denunciations of Guatemala’s president because they are “seditious and disturbing,” the order states.

The judge has not granted these requests, but did schedule a hearing for Feb. 7. In the interim, the judge ordered Zamora to be placed under arraigo (preventative detention).

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) denounced both complaints against Zamora.

It’s outrageous that two of Guatemala’s highest officials are using the judicial system to stop a journalist from publishing criticisms of their government,” stated Carlos Lauria, Senior Americas program coordinator for CPJ. “President Pérez and Vice-President Baldetti must withdraw their complaints against Zamora, allowing him and his newspaper to publish without interference, and to remember that as public officials they are subject to a high degree of public scrutiny.”

Claudio Paolillo, president of the Committee for Freedom of the Press of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), told newspaper Prensa Libre that his organization is preparing an observation mission “that will visit Guatemala in February to analyze the situation and speak with all sides. The situation worries us very much.” Norma Garza

This post was translated by human rights investigator and journalist Patrick Timmons. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.