'This is the most blatant message from a government against freedom of the press,' elPeriódico's deputy director said on the José Rubén Zamora case in Guatemala

It’s been almost a month since the journalist, founder and president of elPeriódico from Guatemala, José Rubén Zamora Marroquín, was arrested by the police after been accused by the Public Prosecutor's Office of alleged money laundering. From the moment of his arrest, as well as the raid on his home and the offices of the newspaper, international and national organizations, as well as his defense, have described the case as one more step in the persecution of the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei against the country’s press.

In the spirit of talking about his case and "keeping the flame burning," as Carlos Jornet of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) said, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) held the panel "Jailed for reporting: Guatemalan authorities target leading journalist" on Aug. 24.

Moderated by Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui, the panel was attended by Lucy Chay, deputy director of elPeriódico; Carlos Dada, director of El Faro from El Salvador; and José Carlos Zamora, communications director of Exile Content Studio and son of José Rubén Zamora Marroquín.

José Rubén Zamora - Guatemala

José Rubén Zamora, periodista guatemalteco, fundador y director de elPeriódico. (Foto: Cortesía)

Zamora began by explaining the difficult relationship between elPeriódico and the government because of journalistic investigations. According to the newspaper’s figures, in the 137 weeks of Giammattei's presidency, elPeriódico has not failed to publish in any week an investigation on alleged cases of corruption — unlawful actions or contracts granted to friends of the administration are part of the constant denunciations.

The investigation that would’ve been the “breaking point,” according to Zamora, was related to a business with a Russian company to exploit a mine. A business in which the President would have received money.

After this and other investigations, on July 29, the Attorney General's Office "managed to put together a case based on some real facts that they managed to twist and then add some illegal evidence and other fabricated evidence," Zamora told the panel.

The prosecution's case against Zamora Marroquín, which was put together in 72 hours according to an investigation by El Faro, is based on the testimony of a single person and the delivery of money that Zamora Marroquín did make as part of a financial boycott against the media.

According to Zamora, "elPeriódico throughout its history has experienced different types of persecution by the State." In addition to threats, kidnappings, assassination attempts, among other attacks, one of the latest strategies is a commercial boycott. According to Zamora and Lucy Chay, the government prohibits large companies from advertising in the news outlet.

"This has led many businessmen, who believe that elPeriódico plays a fundamental role in Guatemala's democracy, to want to support the newspaper, but without letting it be known because they fear reprisals from the State," Zamora said. He gave the example of a businessman who lost his license for a year after continuing to advertise in the newspaper.

It was in this context that Zamora Marroquín received a cash donation from a businessman. "It must be emphasized that these are legal and banked funds, they come from the banking system," Zamora added. Since it was cash, the director of elPeriódico looked for a way to reenter it into the banking system to, among other things, pay the journalists' payroll. This is when the figure of Ronald Giovanni García Navarijo appears, a former banker that Zamora Marroquín had known for a long time because he had been manager of the Banco de los Trabajadores and because he had been a source for elPeriódico.

According to Zamora's account, García Navarijo offered Zamora Marroquín to enter the donation into the banking system -- something that was not seen as suspicious because of his past as a banker. Zamora Marroquín gave the money to García Navarijo and García Navarijo gave him a check that was to be deposited in elPeriódico's account. This step was never completed because the check did not have funds.

These two points were highlighted by Zamora to assure that the crime of money laundering does not apply to his father's case. First, because the money has a licit origin and was in the banking system (in fact, the original photo of the Public Prosecutor's Office shows the money with bank bands, which disappeared during his father's first hearing). And second, that the money never made it into the banking system because the account had no funds.

"The truth is that Navarijo swindled. He received the money in cash — banked, legal and legitimate — and gave a check without funds," Zamora said. He added that they currently believe that everything “was a set-up by the Public Prosecutor's Office.”

Despite the weak case they have, according to Zamora, the justice system granted the Public Prosecutor's Office the maximum period of time allowed by Guatemalan law to build the case, that is, three months. He also decided that Zamora Marroquín should spend those three months in jail and not under house arrest, for example, as they would have done in other cases.

“From the beginning, this process has failed to comply with all legal requirements and procedural timeframes,” Zamora said.

Harassment against the press in Guatemala and the region

"We do believe that the intention is not only the arrest of José Rubén Zamora, but to kill and suffocate elPeriódico, which has been a news outlet dedicated to oversight, to the investigation of all cases of corruption in the country. And definitely if they are doing it with us, who already have 26 years of being monitoring the government, they are going to continue with other news outlets," Chay, deputy director of the outlet, said emphatically. "This is just beginning, not ending."

Chay spoke of the conditions in which the team is currently doing journalism: without receiving a salary due to the freezing of accounts and with a lot of fear of what might happen. For example, days after the accounts of the newspaper were unfrozen, the financial director of the newspaper was arrested, which again affected the newspaper’s normal operation.

"We are working slowly. It's a pretty tough process for the editorial staff that has worked closely together. And, yes, there is fear and we believe that this same fear is motivating us to work and has made us work during all this time," she said. "The conviction of the newsroom and the whole team is to keep working and look for ways to continue to function. We don't know how long we can hold out, but we are still there."

Captura de pantalla panel caso José Rubén Zamora

Panel organizado por ICFJ sobre el caso de José Rubén Zamora. Sentido de reloj: Carlos Jornet (SIP), Patrick Buttler (ICFJ), José Zamora (Exile Content), Carlos Dada (El Faro), Lucy Chay (elPeriódico) y Carmen Aristegui (Aristegui Noticias). (Captura de pantalla)

Chay also mentioned the different attacks that Zamora Marrqouín and the newspaper have faced. In 2003 his home was raided, and he and his family had to go into exile. In 2008, he was kidnapped, drugged and left "as dead" on a highway. In 2016, he again had to go into exile for almost seven months after learning of a plot to make an attempt against his life. He has also had to face different criminal charges, one of the most recent using the Femicide Law. Last May, the news outlet learned that the Public Prosecutor's Office was planning a case against it, which finally materialized on July 29.

Carlos Dada of El Faro spoke about the deterioration of Guatemala's judicial system. In a brief summary, Dada explained how in 2004 the Guatemalan government invited the United Nations to intervene in order to recover the State that seemed to be lost to organized crime. With the creation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the creation of the Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity (FECI), it began to recover.

The government of Jimmy Morales, however, decided to terminate the agreement with CICIG. "Then the retaking of the State apparatus began," Dada said. He explained that the then-Attorney General was dismissed and is currently in exile, along with the then-head of the FECI. The current Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, and the head of FECI, Rafael Curruchiche, are on the US Engel list - a list of Central American officials accused of corruption.

"They are the ones who today are prosecuting José Rubén Zamora. I think it is very important to clarify this so that we realize the origin and credibility of the case against José Rubén Zamora," Dada said.

Chay added that the departure of the CICIG took place when investigations against former President Morales were beginning, and that the replacement of the head of the FECI arrived when President Giammattei was being investigated. Currently, 24 justice operators are in exile, and five are being prosecuted, Dada said.

"My dad's case is not only a case against him. This is an example of what is happening in the country. It is a systematic attack on democracy and a systematic attack on the press. Giammattei has persecuted activists. Then, as they said, he has persecuted the justice operators who handled high-impact corruption cases. And, now, he is persecuting the press. It is an attack by an extremely authoritarian regime, it is systematic, and it is against democracy," Zamora said.

"This is perhaps the most blatant message from a government against freedom of expression, against freedom of the press," Chay said at the end of the panel. "It's a pretty strong message, not only for the press, but also for all people who want to raise their voice against the government or who disagree with the government."

A danger that is not limited to Guatemala, which has more and more journalists in exile or on trial, Dada said. Nicaragua's journalism is almost entirely in exile and has officially run out of newspapers. In El Salvador, there is a system of attack against any voice critical of the government. Mexico, with its attacks on journalists from the presidency, also stands out. Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela are reference points for their attacks on the press, and even Costa Rica has already started to make headlines for its hostile relationship with the press.

"The attack on the press has the intention of not allowing an alternative narrative to the one they want to impose, which is that of the State. That is to say, today governments have the prerogative of truth and they exercise it by hiding all the information. And we journalists, whose function is to position ourselves in front of power and demand accountability, are a hindrance," Dada said.

The consequences for journalism are clear. First, the harassed and persecuted media and its journalists, due to the concern, leave aside their main role, which is to serve the community with information and to investigate corruption. It also affects and frightens sources, but especially affects the citizenry.

"It directly affects the right of citizens to be informed, to know what is being done with public funds," Dada said. "We are effectively living in a situation in which autocratic and populist regimes are dismantling democracy. For them, the exercise of journalism is clearly a hindrance. The ultimate goal is not to prove that José Rubén Zamora is a money launderer. The ultimate goal is to silence us. To silence us because our investigations directly affect their monopoly of power."

The panel closed with remarks by Carlos Jornet, chairman of IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, He went over the authoritarian tendencies against the press in the region, led by the Ortega-Murillo couple in Nicaragua, whom he described as a "school of dictators.”

"For all these reasons, we have — we and all of us who believe in the value of democracy and freedom — the obligation and commitment to make our voice heard in the case of José Rubén Zamora," Jornet said. "Let it resound throughout the continent and beyond, because surely you will agree with me that in this raid, in this arrest, in this indictment one can recognize the beginning of a process aimed at closing the door on free journalism and moving against all democratic institutions."