Erect and dignified but barely containing his emotions, Guatemala’s leading journalist faced a judge last month. He had already been in prison for nearly a year. During that time, four of his lawyers were imprisoned and two others fled the country. Hours before the hearing, he had sent his wife abroad out of fear for her safety.
The judge spoke, and José Rubén Zamora, 66-year-old dean of Guatemalan journalism, was pronounced guilty of money laundering and sentenced to six years in prison.
His combative newspaper had already shut down. Around the same time, something similar happened in neighboring El Salvador: The main independent news outlet left the country under government pressure. Nicaragua, meanwhile, has become the only country in the Western Hemisphere without a printed daily newspaper.
Leaders of those three Central American countries have decided that they can no longer tolerate published reports of their corruption. Their recent blows have all but liquidated the free press in their countries. Central America was once thought to be on a path toward democracy. Now three of its five countries are a dead zone for journalism.
These crackdowns are just the latest episodes in the long and sorry tale of how government institutions have broken down in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Rule of law has evaporated in all three countries. Organized crime shapes politics. Powerful figures tell judges what to decide. Honest news reporting that exposes secrets and documents abuse of power, illicit enrichment, and theft of public funds threatens these systems.
In all three of these countries, classic military dictators emerged during the 1930s. The United States later supported these regimes because they were Cold War allies. Then, in the 1980s, all three countries erupted into civil war. After the wars ended, all three began evolving toward democracy. There seemed hope that they might finally develop open societies.
That’s over. New blows against the press seem to have put a jarring end to hopes that Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua can transcend their heritage of conflict anytime soon. All three countries have slid so far backward that dissent and truth-telling are now just as dangerous as they were in the heyday of anti-Communist dictatorships.
Guatemala, traditionally Central America’s leader, delivered the region’s most recent blow against the press by sentencing Zamora on June 14. His newspaper, elPeriódico, waged a quarter-century-long campaign against official corruption. For this he suffered a home invasion by armed gunmen, had his office stormed by a torch-carrying mob, and was kidnapped and beaten unconscious before being dumped alongside a highway.
The final axe fell when police arrested Zamora at his home a year ago. Ten months later, his newspaper folded. After his sentencing last month, the boldest journalist in Guatemala’s modern history was led back to jail.
The editor of elPeriódico’s counterpart in El Salvador, Óscar Martínez, didn’t wait for police to arrive. His crusading journal, El Faro, was founded in 1998 as Central America’s first Internet-only news medium. It assembled an energetic staff and published a series of startling exposes. Continuing to do so became steadily more difficult as authoritarian rule tightened. A new Salvadoran law bans reporting on drug gangs. Independent judges have been removed from their posts. In April, Martínez announced that he was fleeing El Salvador and would try to run El Faro from Costa Rica, 500 miles to the south and the region’s only true democracy.
In Nicaragua, the role of the press in fighting dictatorship — and the role of a single family — has an extraordinary historical symmetry. For decades the newspaper publisher Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was the main critic of the ruling Somoza dynasty. His murder in 1978 helped set off a rebellion that toppled the dynasty. Today one of the leaders of that rebellion, Daniel Ortega, is Nicaragua’s president. He has become even more repressive than the Somozas were.
In 2018 Ortega’s agents raided the offices of a boldly independent Nicaraguan journal, Confidencial. Its editor fled to Costa Rica. He is still there, and still devoted to reporting news from his homeland. That editor’s name? Carlos Fernando Chamorro — son of the press martyr who died while fighting another Nicaraguan dictator almost half a century ago.
The region’s other troubled country, Honduras, is no longer among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists but is hardly comfortable for them. When a leading Honduran editor, Jennifer Ávila, accepted a prize last month, her speech was a cry of pain.
“Today my country is militarized and my region, Central America, is governed by tyrants, dictators, narcissists, and criminals,” she said. “For this reason I believe in journalism even more. It’s up to us to listen, to cry out into the silence, to safeguard memory, so that perhaps one day this suffocated voice will finally be heard.”
Even in Costa Rica, the press is now under unusual pressure. It remains free, but the confrontational president, Rodrigo Chaves, has denounced several reporters as “political hitmen” and threatened to “destroy” the country’s largest newspaper. Decisions by the Constitutional Court however, have strongly supported press freedom — a sign that rule of law still prevails there.
Central America — with the sterling exception of Costa Rica — has become a graveyard for the free press. Outsiders have every right to deplore this. We should also, however, take the plight of Central American journalism as a warning. It reminds us that press freedom needs defenders in every society — including our own.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.