Guatemala: One more step towards the elimination of freedom of expression

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Geneva, Paris, 4 August 2022. The arbitrary arrest and criminalisation of the journalist and founder of el Periódico, José Rubén Zamora, and the seizure of the newspaper’s bank accounts put freedom of expression at risk and are evidence, once again, of the constant deterioration of the rule of law in Guatemala, according to the report of the Unidad de Protección a Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala UDEFEGUA and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

Last Friday, 30 July 2022, the Fiscalía Especial Contra la Impunidad (FECI) of the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office received authorisation from a judge to arrest the journalist José Rubén Zamora, president and founder of el Periódico newspaper. It was also authorised to raid Mr Zamora’s residence and the newspaper’s offices, and also to seize the accounts of el Periódico. The Guatemalan Prosecution Office accuses the journalist of “blackmail”, “influence trafficking” and “money laundering”. The prosecution assistant of the FECI Samari Carolina Gómez Díaz was also arbitrarily arrested for the same case, accused of “disclosure of confidential or reserved information”. They are both held in the Mariscal Zavala Military Unit. Yesterday, 3 August 2022, their hearing was suspended and case confidentiality was lifted. Even though the case was no longer under confidentiality, UDEFEGUA was prevented Access to the hearing on the basis that there were no defenders of human rights involved.

el Periódico is one of the principal independent newspapers in the country and it has been reporting cases of corruption and abuses of power for decades. For this reason, the newspaper and its president and founder, José Rubén Zamora, have suffered multiple smear campaigns and hundreds of strategic lawsuits against public participation. This is not the first time that independent journalists have been criminalised for their legitimate work and exercise of freedom of expression in Guatemala, as the Observatory has already reported in the case of Marvin Del Cid and Sonny Figueroa. The arrest of José Rubén Zamora and the seizure of the accounts of elPeriódico represent the culmination of the judicial harassment campaign used by the Guatemalan State to silence critical voices in the country and close civic space even further.

The arbitrary arrest of the prosecution assistant Gómez Díaz is one more step in the dismantling of the independent judicial system dismantling of the independent judicial system which has put 23 members of the judicature in exile and has unfairly criminalised ten prosecutors. The exploitation of criminal law to harass independent judicial operators contributes to the establishment of a system of impunity in the countrywhich in turn facilitates the criminalisation and harassment of human rights defenders.

In the two years of Giammattei’s government, a worrying erosion of the principles and democratic institutions in Guatemala has been observed. The gradual dismantling of the independent judicial system has seriously damaged the rule of law and the separation of Powers in the country. Furthermore, the criminalisation of independent journalists, human rights defenders and indigenous organisations have continued to the closure of civic space with systematic violations of the rights of meeting, association and expression.

The Observatory and the UDEFEGUA energetically condemn the arrest and criminalisation if the journalist José Rubén Zamora and of the prosecution assistant Samari Gómez, and they regard these acts as reprisals by the Guatemalan State for their legitimate work as an independent journalist and a judicial operator, respectively. Both organisations urge the Guatemalan authorities to immediately and unconditionally release José Rubén Zamora and Samari Gómez and to stop the judicial harassment against independent journalism and against independent judicial operators.

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