The Media Today

Guatemala has a new reformist president. Will he get a veteran muckraker out of jail?

January 30, 2024
Newspaper founder and editor Jose Ruben Zamora is taken in a patrol car back to prison after a court hearing in Guatemala City, Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Santiago Billy)

In the summer of 2022, a unit of armed police officers in Guatemala raided the home of José Rubén Zamora, the founder of the independent newspaper elPeriódico, and arrested him on suspicion of money laundering and associated crimes while his grandchildren hid in a closet. This was not the first dramatic moment of Zamora’s life: in 1996, the year he founded elPeriódico, an assailant threw grenades at his parked car; in 2008, he was drugged, stripped naked, and left for dead outside in the cold, with medical personnel only realizing that he was still alive as they began to perform an autopsy; more recently, he and his colleagues have faced dozens of frivolous legal cases over their reporting, including under laws intended to combat the killing of women. Still, his arrest felt like a crossing of the Rubicon. 

On paper, the financial charges against Zamora stemmed from his handling of money donated to elPeriódico. But the case looked cobbled together from the start, and many observers instantly suspected that it was politically motivated. Zamora had been a thorn in the side of the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei: he had recently detailed corruption claims involving Russian interests in Guatemala and written, in his widely read (and frequently controversial) gossip column, about alleged wrongdoing on the part of Giammattei and a young associate, whom Zamora dubbed “the ogre and the little prince.” Whereas other high-profile Guatemalan prisoners—including at least one former president—have been put up in comfortable lodgings, Zamora was put in solitary confinement, entitled only to an hour of exercise per day. When Joel Simon, a former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists who now leads the Journalism Protection Initiative at the City University of New York, visited Zamora last April, Zamora told him that his early days behind bars were marked by “water cutoffs, random searches, all-night construction outside his cell, and a bed-bug infestation that he suspects was deliberate.” 

In May, elPeriódico, which had already ceased its print edition, stopped publishing entirely. In June, a court found Zamora guilty of money laundering and sentenced him to six years in prison. Speaking to NBC at the time, Zamora’s son José Carlos, himself a media executive, based in the US, said he suspected that his father’s conviction had been rushed through ahead of presidential elections scheduled for the end of that month. He also—as Simon had done before him, in an essay about Zamora’s detention for The New Yorker—made the case that the Biden administration could be applying more pressure to Guatemala’s government to set Zamora free; despite its lofty rhetoric about global democracy, the administration appeared loath to take any action that could complicate its work with Guatemala on curbing migration both from and through the country.

Six months or so later and these interlaced problems—Zamora’s detention, the broader state of press freedom in Guatemala, the role of the US in the country’s democracy, and the political salience of migration—remain live issues. (Zamora’s conviction in the money-laundering case was overturned in October, but he still faces a retrial and has remained in prison on other charges.) The political climate surrounding them, however, has shifted radically and unexpectedly: Giammattei is out as president, and has been succeeded by Bernardo Arévalo, an anti-corruption outsider who was able to take power thanks in no small part to intervention by the US and other powers. “It’s hard to overstate what the Arévalo election represents for Guatemala, and for the region, and even for the world,” Simon told me last week. 

Already, there are signs of a change in the Guatemalan government’s approach to Zamora’s case. But resolving it—not to mention improving conditions for Guatemala’s other independent journalists—remains a highly complicated task. And how engaged the US and other governments might remain in either fight from here out is still to be seen (particularly while migration remains a central political issue at home). 

When Zamora was sentenced back in June, the political earthquake about to hit his country was still hard to foresee. Officials acted to bar a number of opposition candidates from competing in the election. Arévalo, however, was allowed to stand (perhaps because he wasn’t seen as much of a threat to the political establishment) and ended up forcing a runoff against Sandra Torres, a former first lady. (Giammattei was term-limited and couldn’t run again.) Quickly, various authorities attempted to throw roadblocks in Arévalo’s path, including by ordering the suspension of his party; in August, Arévalo nonetheless won the runoff, but officials including María Consuelo Porras, the attorney general, attempted to seize ballots, among other apparent dirty tricks. Earlier this month, members of the legislature briefly stalled Arévalo’s inauguration, though he was eventually sworn in. Through it all, the US and other regional governments reportedly piled on the pressure to keep the transfer of power on track, even going so far as to levy sanctions against lawmakers and powerful people. Manfredo Marroquín, an anti-corruption advocate, concluded that “the pressure from the United States has prevented a coup d’état.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

If this looked like a step change in US urgency over Guatemala’s democracy, it also looked, as various observers noted, like a total one-eighty on its historical role in the country: in 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup that overthrew the government of President Jacobo Árbenz, who had succeeded Juan José Arévalo—Bernardo’s father, who came to power a decade earlier in free elections that followed a period of military rule and ushered in social and political reforms, including significant freedom for the press. (Recently, a journalist from Newsmax asked a Biden administration spokesperson whether the US, in light of its recent support for Arévalo Jr., would apologize for the 1954 coup; the spokesperson said that he wasn’t aware of any plans to do so.) 

The coup presaged decades marked by military dictatorship, genocide, and civil war, which didn’t end until the nineties; there followed a window of relative openness (during which Zamora founded elPeriódico), but criminal networks reestablished a grip on state institutions and anti-corruption initiatives were progressively eroded. In recent years, Porras, the attorney general, has gone after prosecutors, judges, and journalists like Zamora, criminalizing them or forcing them into exile. When Simon visited Zamora in jail last year, the latter complained that his country had become a “klepto-narco dictatorship, which renews itself every four years.”

This time, maybe not—Arévalo has taken office promising to root out corruption, end human rights abuses, and raise living standards, among other pledges. He has also promised to respect press freedom. Since taking office earlier this month, he has already engaged on Zamora’s case, including by asking Porras to clarify the criteria for prosecution in cases involving free expression. Last week, Arévalo met with delegates from the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Inter American Press Association and promised not to wield the law as a cudgel against journalists. “We were pleased to hear that freedom of expression is a key priority” for Arévalo, Carlos Lauria, the latter group’s executive director, told me. 

Still, Arévalo faces significant potential obstacles in handling Zamora’s case. Porras is still the attorney general and expected to remain in post for the foreseeable future; Arévalo has called on her to resign and summoned her to a meeting last week, but ahead of time, Porras posted a video message online insisting that her office is autonomous of the presidency and that she is staying put. (Arévalo could conceivably change the law to get around Porras, but lacks the legislative majority necessary to do so, according to the Associated Press.) And Roman Gressier, a Guatemala-based journalist for El Faro, a leading independent news site founded in neighboring El Salvador, told me that while Arévalo has stressed that press freedom is a priority for him, he has also said repeatedly that he respects the separation of powers, perhaps making him unlikely to intervene too heavily in Zamora’s case.

And the deleterious environment for press freedom in Guatemala extends far beyond Zamora’s individual case; Gressier described “a general climate of hostility, anxiety, fear, and criminalization,” and noted that Zamora was arrested, at least in part, to send a message to other journalists. Other members of the press—including several who worked with Zamora at elPeriódico—have faced charges, too; a number of them have gone into exile, often in the US. According to a report prepared by several international press-freedom and -rights groups ahead of last year’s elections, a local journalists’ association logged over four hundred press-freedom violations since Giammattei took office; the same report described regional Indigenous journalists as being “especially vulnerable to attacks ranging from judicial harassment to death threats.” Last summer, two journalists in the town of Caballo Blanco were shot dead after covering a murder. (It wasn’t immediately clear if their killing was linked to their work.)

In his first weeks in office, Arévalo has picked low-hanging fruit—holding a proper press conference, for instance—but his press-freedom challenge is a daunting one. And, if the Biden administration pushed hard to get him into office following his election, it’s not clear that they’ll remain as engaged on longer-term questions of democracy and press freedom. (After Arévalo was inaugurated, some observers suggested hypocrisy on Biden’s part given his administration’s publicly warm relations with Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, whose own record on press freedom and other issues is highly checkered.) The Biden administration deserves credit for rowing in behind Arévalo, Simon told me, but it was “presented with an opportunity by the Guatemalan people,” many of whom protested for months to ensure Arévalo’s installation. It’s hard to conclude, at any rate, that press freedom has suddenly become a top foreign-policy issue for Biden.

In recent days, the US did send a senior diplomat to visit Zamora in jail—a step that Guatemalan officials blocked under the Giammattei administration, per Simon—where he conveyed a US commitment to press freedom in Guatemala. A reporter from Le Monde also recently visited Zamora. He told them that, since Arévalo was inaugurated, he’d been offered a move to the prison’s plusher VIP compounds—but that he had declined, and instead asked that the working conditions of his guards be improved. He praised Arévalo for calling in Porras, but also called on the new president to apologize to him, on television, on behalf of the Guatemalan state. And he noted to the reporter that, while it still existed, elPeriódico investigated corruption claims against politicians who have recently been appointed to the cabinet. “I don’t know if Bernardo Arévalo would like reading elPeriódico today,” Zamora said.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, a federal judge sentenced Charles Littlejohn—a former contractor for the Internal Revenue Service who leaked Donald Trump’s tax records to the New York Times, then later handed reams of financial data from other wealthy individuals to ProPublica—to five years in prison, the maximum possible sentence. (Littlejohn pleaded guilty last year.) The judge, Ana C. Reyes, compared Littlejohn to the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 and said that he had attacked “our constitutional democracy” by targeting a sitting president, adding that while some people may see him as a hero, “I want you to know that I am not one of them.” The Post has more.
  • The voting-tech company Smartmatic—which is suing the right-wing One America News Network for defamation over its peddling of Trumpian conspiracy theories about the 2020 election—revealed in court filings that in the wake of that election, Charles Herring, OAN’s president, sent Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s lawyers, a spreadsheet that he claimed contained passwords for Smartmatic staffers. It’s not clear if the passwords were genuine, but Smartmatic has accused OAN executives of violating data-privacy laws, claims that OAN has denied. CNN’s Marshall Cohen has the details.
  • The union representing staffers at Sports Illustrated—where the bulk of the unionized staff was told it would be laid off recently amid a licensing dispute between the company that owns the title’s brand and the company that publishes the magazine—filed an unfair-labor-practices charge against the latter firm, accusing it of engaging in union-busting, the Post’s Ben Strauss reports. Meanwhile, in other labor news, unionized staffers at The Onion and other sites owned by G/O Media voted to authorize a strike.
  • Last week, authorities arrested a Ukrainian couple who run a limousine service in Portland, Oregon, on suspicion of stealing more than thirty million dollars in unauthorized bank-card charges from Win McCormack, the publisher of the New Republic (among other ventures). According to a federal prosecutor, the heist may be the largest against a single person in the history of Oregon’s court system. The Oregonian has more.
  • And Iskandar Safa—a Franco-Lebanese naval-construction magnate who, since 2015, had owned Valeurs Actuelles, an influential hard-right magazine in France—has died. He was sixty-eight and had reportedly been seriously ill. Last year, I wrote about Valeurs Actuelles as Safa clashed with Geoffroy Lejeune, then the editor, over the magazine’s editorial line, which Safa reportedly believed had moved too far to the right.

ICYMI: Dog bites man

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.