Press freedom organizations condemn sentence of Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, voice concerns about other open court cases

The sentence came with almost no surprise. During almost a year of judicial proceedings against Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora Marroquín, the case received multiple accusations of irregularities and violations, among others, of due process, preventing a "fair trial" as the journalist himself denounced.

On June 14, the Eighth Sentencing Court of the Judiciary, presided over by Judge Oly González, sentenced Zamora to six years in prison for the alleged crime of money laundering. The same court acquitted him of the crimes of blackmail and influence peddling, which were included in the same trial.

The journalist, who was not allowed to read his final defense speech during the hearing, announced that he will appeal the decision. He also said that he might take the case before the Inter-American human rights system, if necessary.

"All my rights have been violated, but I hope to regain my freedom because the Prosecutor's Office was unable to prove anything," Zamora told EFE news agency before the June 14 hearing began.

Although the journalist had initially been ordered to pay a fine of 300,000 quetzales (about US $38,000) for "a dignified reparation to the State of Guatemala," on Monday, June 19, the same judge ruled that the fine was "illegitimate."

Although the judge did not grant the 40 years in prison requested by the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI, by its Spanish acronym), the sentence provoked general condemnation by different organizations. They voiced their concern for the general situation of journalists in Guatemala, the weakening of its democracy, and for Zamora himself, who has at least two other open court cases against him.

One of the first people to speak out was the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Pedro Vaca, who on his Twitter account expressed his "concern" about the conviction.

"The news outlet he led has closed. Several journalists who covered his case are under investigation. There are daily reports of fear and self-censorship in the Guatemalan press," Vaca wrote.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also issued a statement in which it called the criminal proceedings an "absurd farce.”

"The shameful conviction and imprisonment of Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora is a stark testament to the erosion of freedom of expression in the country and the desperate efforts of President Alejandro Giammattei's government to criminalize journalism," said Carlos Martínez de la Serna, CPJ's Program Director, according to the statement. "Guatemalan authorities must put an end to this absurd farce of criminal proceedings against him. It is time to free José Rubén Zamora, whose only 'crime' has been the bold exercise of his profession."

For the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the sentence demonstrates the "institutional fragility of the country."

"This is a low blow for press freedom in Guatemala," said Carlos Jornet, chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, according to a press release. For Jornet, it is "contradictory, or at least suspicious, that a journalist, whose denunciations of public corruption led to presidents and high-ranking officials being jailed, should end up in prison."

Guatemala's journalists' collective #NoNosCallarán [We will not be silenced] condemned the conviction "based on illegal evidence." "We condemn the conviction against Zamora Marroquín not only because illegally obtained evidence was used to convict him, but also because due process and his legitimate right of defense were flagrantly violated," the group said in a statement.

No nos callarán also mentioned the investigation that has been opened against eight columnists and journalists of elPeriódico — a news outlet founded by Zamora, which was forced to close on May 15 due to the judicial process —, which resulted from covering the case.

"[The conviction and investigation] demonstrate, once again, the strategy of persecution and criminalization against independent media and journalists, and the malicious use of criminal law to impose censorship, silence and impunity," the group stated. "We reiterate our profound condemnation of the weaponization of justice to silence critical voices, stifle independent media and, through this, violate the right of the population to be informed."

Trial irregularities and other court cases against him

Zamora and his defense team denounced what they considered to be a series of irregularities from the beginning of his case. All of these were recorded in the final defense speech that Zamora was prevented from reading, but which the newspaper El País published in its entirety.

"I had been reading the universal declaration of human rights and the American convention on human rights. I realized all my rights had been violated," Zamora said in his speech.

Among the rights mentioned, Zamora spoke of the right to fair trial, as well as the necessary guarantees for his defense. He mentioned, for example, how during the entire criminal process he had to be assisted by nine defense attorneys, both public and private, most of them "persecuted by the State of Guatemala. According to him, four were imprisoned and two left the country, "all to avoid having an effective technical defense."

In his statement, Zamora also gave a detailed explanation of the irregularities in the three charges against him and why he believes the court should acquit him or overturn the veredict.

[Click here to learn more about the case against Zamora and the allegations of irregularities in his trial.]

Zamora has two more open court cases: On Feb. 28, the Prosecutor's Office added to this first crime that was tried, the charge of "conspiracy to obstruct justice." According to the Prosecutor's Office, Zamora would have mounted a smear campaign against justice operators through publications in elPeriódico, with the help of other people. Based on this, it requested an investigation against seven journalists and two columnists of elPeriódico for the same crime. The Prosecutor's Office also requested the judge to investigate the financing sources of the news outlet and the journalists, something that was accepted by the judge.

The third case has to do with the use of false documents. According to the Prosecutor's Office, the journalist would have used false documents to enter and leave the country between 2015 and 2017. He added that the signatures on the customs forms were not Zamora's signature.

For his son José Carlos Zamora, the fact that the State "spent resources" on looking for customs forms from 2015 in search of another charge to levy against his father is part of a strategy to keep critical voices locked up, given that they have yet not proven the crimes of which he is accused.

"They use one court proceeding after another to make sure that people who annoy them are kept in prison," said Zamora Jr. in an interview with Carmen Aristegui. He believes another example of this is that of former prosecutor Virginia Laparra, who finds herself in prison with more and more cases piled against her.

"They’ve shown they’re desperate to find something that will allow them to keep my father in prison," he said. "Everything has been falling apart for them.” “They are very close to losing power," he added, alluding the upcoming presidential elections.”