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Human rights groups and U.S. join international outcry over Guatemalan journalist's arrest

José Rubén Zamora, founder and director of a newspaper in Guatemala and a vocal critic of the government, went on a hunger strike after his detention.
Guatemalan journalist Jose Ruben Zamora
José Rubén Zamora, founder and president of the newspaper elPeriodico, was arrested Friday in Guatemala City.Johan Ordonez / AFP - Getty Images

International human rights groups, organizations that advocate freedom of the press and countries including the United States have strongly condemned the arrest of a prominent journalist and editor in Guatemala and called for his immediate release.

José Rubén Zamora, founder and president of the newspaper elPeriódico and a vocal government critic, was arrested at his home on Friday night, on various charges, including money laundering, blackmail and influence peddling, according to Rafael Curruchiche, head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), which announced the arrest on social media. Police raided Zamora's home and office earlier on Friday.

Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), based in New York City, said in a statement: “Guatemalan authorities should immediately release and drop any criminal charges against journalist José Rubén Zamora, president of elPeriódico."

“Judicial persecution against journalists is a mechanism of intimidation, and authorities in Guatemala need to put an end to their campaign to intimidate and threaten the press," Guillén Kaiser stated.

Zamora’s journalistic career has been recognized with multiple distinctions, including the María Moors Cabot Award from Columbia University and the International Press Freedom Award, both in 1995, as well as the World Press Freedom Hero award given by the International Press Institute in 2000. 

Jose Ruben Zamora
José Rubén Zamora after a hearing Saturday at the Justice Palace in Guatemala City.Johan Ordonez / AFP - Getty Images

The international group Human Rights Watch condemned his arrest. “The Guatemalan Public Ministry cannot abuse the confidentiality of the criminal process" to unduly limit transparency or restrict the right to a defense, Juan Pappier, senior researcher for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The U.S. State Department's undersecretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, Brian Nichols, tweeted on Saturday: "Safeguarding #PressFreedom is essential to #Democracy. The United States urges full respect of due process under #GUA law & protection of personal safety for @el_periodico @ChepeZamora and FECI prosecutor Samari Gómez."

Nichols was referring to the arrest of Zamora as well as that of Samari Carolina Gómez Diaz, an assistant prosecutor for FECI, who was arrested for “revealing confidential information," according to prosecutors.

Zamora, 66, was expected to appear before a judge on Monday.

In a video uploaded on Saturday, Zamora said that he was going on a hunger strike as a sign of “rejection” of what had taken place and that he does not trust Guatemalan justice. “Let me die if necessary, but let there be justice,” Zamora said.

Zamora founded elPeriódico in 1996 and it has published several reports on acts of alleged corruption by the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei and within the Attorney General’s Office itself.

ElPeriódico’s publications have been critical of Guatemala’s attorney general, Consuelo Porras, for allegedly being in alliance with Giammattei “to attack judges and lawyers involved in anti-corruption cases.”

Curruchiche, who was appointed head of the special prosecutor’s office by Porras, assured that Zamora’s arrest “has nothing to do with his quality as a journalist” and is due to his business activities. 

On July 20, the United States added Curruchiche to the list of people from Central America considered to be "corrupt and undemocratic actors" and prohibited from entering U.S. soil.

The State Department said the individuals had obstructed corruption investigations and undermined democratic processes, weakening the government's ability to respond to citizens' needs, which it said contributes to irregular migration and destabilizes societies.

Porras was added to the State Department's list in May.

The press in Guatemala has stated clearly that Zamora’s arrest is due to elPeriódico's coverage. The Association of Guatemalan Journalists alleged that the accusations against Zamora and the newspaper are part of a “campaign of persecution, criminalization and censorship” by the Guatemalan state.

For his part, the special rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Pedro Vaca, called on the Guatemalan authorities to “ensure compliance with the rights and judicial guarantees” of Zamora.

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) asked the Giammattei government to guarantee freedom of the press and due process in the Zamora case. “This is not the first time that we must defend José Rubén and his journalistic work, since he suffered similar consequences for having denounced acts of corruption during past administrations,” said IAPA President Jorge Canahuati.

The Episcopal Conference of Guatemala also condemned the detention of the veteran journalist and considered it a “de facto” attack against freedom of the press that generates an atmosphere of anxiety and fear in the country.

An earlier version of this article was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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