For activists defending press freedom and human rights in Guatemala, Wednesday looms as a key indicator of the country’s shaky democratic health.
In a courtroom in the country’s capital, the verdict of the trial of one of Guatemala’s most prominent journalists is expected, a case widely seen as another sign of the deterioration of the rule of law in the Central American country.
The journalist, José Rubén Zamora, was the founder and editor of elPeriódico, a major Guatemalan newspaper that regularly investigates government corruption, including allegations involving the current president, Alejandro Giammattei, and the attorney general, María Consuelo Porras .
He is being tried on charges of financial wrongdoing that prosecutors say focus on his business and not his journalism. A jury will render a verdict and, if he is found guilty, impose a sentence.
A conviction, which many legal observers and Mr. Zamora himself say is the likely outcome, would be another blow to Guatemala’s already fragile democracy, according to civil rights advocates, as the government and its allies have repeatedly targeted key institutions and independent news media stations.
The trial also comes as the country heads into a presidential election this month that has already been plagued by irregularities, with four opposition candidates disqualified ahead of the race.
« The rule of law is violated, » said Ana María Méndez, director of Central America at WOLA, a Washington-based research institute. The case of Mr. Zamora represents, she added, a further « step towards the consolidation of a dictatorship » in Guatemala.
Unlike other Central American countries, such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, where democracy has also been eroded, however, power is not concentrated in one family or one individual, Ms Méndez said.
In Guatemala, he added, « authoritarianism is exercised by illicit networks made up of the economic elite, the military elite and organized crime in collusion with the political class. »
Mr Zamora, 66, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and accused the government of trying to silence his critics.
« I am a political prisoner, » he said said reporters on May 2, the day his trial began. He said he fully expected he would end up with a guilty verdict, adding, « I’ll be sentenced. »
During his tenure at the helm of elPeriódico, Mr. Zamora was sued dozens of times, mainly for slander, by the government due to the newspaper’s coverage.
But his most serious legal confrontation with the authorities began last July, when he was accused of money laundering, influence trading and blackmail.
As part of the prosecution’s case, elPeriódico’s bank accounts were frozen, hampering its finances before it closed its doors permanently last month.
The star witness in the case was a former banker, Ronald Giovanni García Navarijo, who told prosecutors that Mr. Zamora had asked him to launder 300,000 Guatemalan quetzales, or nearly $40,000. He also claimed that Mr. Zamora forced him to place paid annual advertisements in the paper to avoid receiving unflattering coverage.
But the prosecution has not presented any evidence to show that Mr. Zamora obtained the money illegally. Most of the funds, which Mr. Zamora said went to pay the salaries of the paper’s employees, came from a businessman who did not want his connection to elPeriódico revealed for fear of reprisals.
His defense has been hampered by several steps taken by prosecutors and by a far-right organization backing the attorney general, the Counterterrorism Foundation, which critics say has been trying to intimidate some of Mr. Zamora’s lawyers.
It reviewed nine defense attorneys and at least four were charged with obstruction of justice for their roles in the case.
« Zamora’s defense was hampered from day one by a revolving door of defense attorneys, » said Stephen Townley, legal director of the TrialWatch initiative at the Clooney Foundation for Justice, a rights group. “Four of his lawyers have been tried by the Guatemalan authorities. Others then seemed to have no access to the materials of their predecessors.
A judge who had presided over the case early in the trial did not allow Mr. Zamora to present any witnesses and rejected most of the evidence he tried to present, deeming it irrelevant.
« We have seen, » Mr. Zamora said in an interview, « a theater of terror. »
Mr. Zamora’s son, José Carlos Zamora, also a journalist, called the trial a « political persecution ».
For his part, Giammattei, referring to the lawsuit against Zamora, said that being a journalist does not give a person the « right to commit criminal acts ».
However, his administration has been accused by human rights groups of using the justice system to target anyone who questions his rule.
Corruption and human rights cases have stalled and the justice system has been « hijacked » by a network of corrupt actors, according to one report by WOLA.
Since 2021, nearly three dozen judges, anti-corruption prosecutors and their lawyers have fled Guatemala, as have 22 journalists who say they have been threatened because of their work.
When elPeriódico was founded in 1996, Guatemala was entering a more promising period after a brutal civil war that lasted nearly four decades and left hundreds of thousands dead or missing. For many weary Guatemalans, there was a sense that democracy was gaining momentum and that the government would govern with transparency.
An international team of UN-backed investigators worked for 12 years alongside the Guatemalan judiciary to unmask corruption among the country’s elite, including top government officials and businessmen, before being expelled from the country in 2019 by the previous president which the group was investigating.
« What we see today is a system that wants to continue to protect criminal behavior, » said Daniel Haering, a political analyst in Guatemala City.
Mr. Zamora’s case and the disappearance of his newspaper hamper efforts to hold the government accountable for its actions, Ms. Méndez said.
« Who will tell the truth now in Guatemala? » she said. “There will be a huge void left.”
Mr. Zamora’s trial comes to a close as the country prepares for national elections on June 25, which civil rights groups say have already been tarnished after judges in recent months barred four presidential candidates from political parties from the ballot. opposition.
Among them was Carlos Pineda, a conservative populist, who had pledged to fight corruption and who a recent poll showed had risen to the top of the league table. Guatemala’s high court removed him from the race on charges that the methods used by Pineda’s party to select him as its candidate had violated electoral law.
Mr. Zamora’s case has also ensnared reporters simply for covering him. Eight journalists, editors and columnists are under investigation on charges of obstruction of justice after writing about the trial for elPeriódico. Most have left Guatemala.
Since Giammattei took office in January 2020, the Guatemalan Association of Journalists has documented 472 cases of harassment, physical assault, intimidation and censorship against the press.
« You immediately ask yourself, ‘At what point is my coverage being interpreted as a crime?' » said Claudia Méndez, who worked at elPeriódico as a reporter and editor and now works for a Guatemalan radio show. “’At what point is my work no longer an exercise in criticism and responsibility, but seen as an illegal act?’”