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OPINION

The alarming erosion of press freedom in Central America

José Rubén Zamora’s case stands as one example of the pernicious backsliding into authoritarianism of various degrees that’s happened in the region in the last few years.

Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, president of the newspaper elPeriódico, is seen after being arrested in Guatemala City on July 29.JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an obligatory step of a would-be authoritarian regime is to silence the press. And when a Central American nation, whose government can be described, at best, as a fragile democracy, imprisons one of its most prominent journalists based on flimsy evidence, we in the United States must take notice.

José Rubén Zamora was arrested in Guatemala late last month on charges that include money laundering and influence peddling, according to Guatemalan authorities. Zamora is an award-winning journalist who is the president and founder of elPeriódico, a hard-hitting newspaper known for uncovering government corruption. The case against Zamora was built in 72 hours and is apparently based on a single witness, according to a report from El Faro.

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Zamora’s case stands as one example of the pernicious backsliding into authoritarianism of various degrees that’s happened in the region in the last few years. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has engaged in concerning assaults on the press, while Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has systematically eroded press rights to the point that many journalists have fled the country for fear of persecution.

One cannot ignore the irrefutable connection between those regional tendencies and the increased migration from the area to the United States. The Biden administration says it cares about advancing the fight against violence, corruption, and impunity in Central American countries so that they will stop pushing so many of their citizens into forced displacement and migration. One crucial element of such a fight is the defense and strengthening of press rights. How can a citizenry keep its government leaders accountable without it?

That was Zamora’s life’s work: to hold the powerful to account. His son, also named José Zamora and also a journalist, has worked and lived in the United States for the past 18 years. “Throughout my father’s career and through the years, we personally experienced all sorts of attacks from the government, from state-run defamation campaigns to fiscal terrorism where the state would do tax audits of the newspaper but never found anything,” José said in an interview.

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Mayan Poqomam Indigenous leaders gather outside court to show support for journalist José Rubén Zamora, president of the newspaper el Periódico. Zamora was arrested at his home Friday, July 29 by agents and police armed with assault rifles.Moises Castillo/Associated Press

Apparently Zamora was afraid the government was preparing a sham case against him. Indeed, his case raises questions because the judicial apparatus in Guatemala has lost credibility and independence.

That’s because President Alejandro Giammattei has been dismantling any trace of real anticorruption measures and judicial actors in the country. The International Commission Against Impunity, which was an independent effort supported by the US government and the United Nations, was terminated in 2019 by the previous administration and Giammattei never supported bringing it back. Since it was created in 2006, the CICIG, as the commission was known, prosecuted more than 100 cases and charged roughly 700 people.

Giammattei then appointed problematic individuals as the country’s top prosecutors, including those in charge of Zamora’s case. To wit: Guatemala’s Attorney General María Consuelo Porras was sanctioned by the US Department of State under the list of corrupt and undemocratic actors from Central America for obstructing “investigations into acts of corruption by interfering with criminal investigations.” Informally known as the Engel list after the sponsor of the law in 2020, then-US Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the document includes Porras, several Guatemalan businessmen, and José Rafael Curruchiche, the chief of a special prosecutor unit against impunity that’s involved in Zamora’s case. All names on the Engel list have had their US visas revoked and won’t be able to enter the United States.

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Zamora’s arrest has been seen by some of his Guatemalan colleagues as a watershed moment. “If [the government] went after the most important journalist [in the country,] how can we expect it to not go after the rest?” Haroldo Sánchez said in an interview. Sánchez, the founder and director of digital news outlet Factor4, told me that during the Giammattei administration there have been about 350 instances of harassment, restrictions, or assaults of various kinds on the press as tracked by the Guatemalan association of journalists.

Zamora has a storied journalistic career that includes recognitions such as the María Moors Cabot Prizes, awarded by Columbia University, among others. His arrest has been widely condemned by international groups such as the Inter American Press Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Authors like Nobel Literature prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, Alma Guillermoprieto, and Jon Lee Anderson, as well as actor Oscar Isaac, are among roughly 50 prominent writers and artists who have signed a public letter demanding Zamora’s immediate release.

Zamora’s case is yet another example of how costly and elusive the search for the truth has been in Central America. Zamora is in a military prison awaiting trial and his next court hearing is in December. I asked Sánchez what the Biden administration can do vis-à-vis Zamora’s case beyond tweeting generic condemnation messages. “A lot! Much more!” he said, such as increasing the pressure on Guatemalan officials through more stringent sanctions.

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The United States provides Guatemala with hundreds of millions in annual aid and one condition for such support should include allowing a danger-free media environment. Otherwise, the aid is destined to go to waste.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.