The arrest of renowned journalist Jose Ruben Zamora, winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Award and declared one of the world’s press freedom heroes in 2000 by the International Press Institute, drew international attention to the deterioration of Guatemala’s institutional structure in late July.
Juan Luis Font, an investigative journalist and for 17 years director of El Periódico – whose owner is Zamora – regrets what is happening in his country. He compares it to the days of the inquiries of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, when many in Central America believed that there would finally be justice.
Font himself is safely based outside his country while they persecute him via the courts like others of his colleagues.
Juan Luis, how do you explain to the world that the Guatemalan government has arrested an internationally renowned journalist like Zamora?
The pendulum has reached the opposite extreme from where it began in 2015 with the United Nations Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, and the Public Ministry led at that time by Telma Aldana, processing a large number of corrupt people.
Now what we are facing is the revenge or retaliation of these people or groups, who are looking to settle scores. So, they have started a very tough campaign against former prosecutors who prosecuted several corruption cases, as well as against former judges and journalists. Jose Ruben is Guatemala’s most recognized and award-winning figure in journalism.
The Prosecutor’s Office accuses Zamora of having illicitly received 200,000 quetzales. But in his first appearance, he rejected this and assured that it is a set-up by President Alejandro Giammattei. What is the basis of the accusation?
It’s hard to know. The Public Ministry has not yet made it clear what the specific accusation against Jose Ruben is. There is talk of a statement by a very corrupt former banker, who, by the way, has already been prosecuted for a major case of corruption in a private bank, but with State participation in Guatemala. This person says he lent 200,000 quetzales, which is just over $25,000, to Jose Ruben. He says it was due to blackmail.
Jose Ruben affirms that it was a loan that was made to him and that he can prove that this money was immediately entered into the accounts of El Periodico. He used it to pay for the newspaper’s expenses. But we do not know what the full accusation is, because just yesterday the hearing was suspended, and Jose Ruben’s defense lawyers were accused of having participated in a cover-up plot of this alleged loan.
One of the first measures taken by the authorities was the seizure of El Periódico’s accounts. What direct impact does it have on the newspaper? Can the paper continue to operate?
Administratively it cannot continue to operate. You can’t, for example, pay your reporters or charge your few advertisers. It’s a very big blow. However, I think they will be able to withstand/survive it because they have the solidarity of a part of society, and a lot of faith in their reporting.
So that your listeners understand, in Guatemala El Periodico, is the newspaper that most frequently publishes acts of corruption, attributable to both the current and previous governments.
So what is Attorney General Consuelo Porras Seeking?
To silence a media, the most important one, the one that continually stings the most, questions, and brings out the corruption of the system. The system of corruption has returned in all its manifestations. They are regaining power. They have managed to co-opt the judicial system, though not completely, but almost. They have managed to almost completely control the Attorney General’s Office, as well as the courts — both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court.
We have a gigantic concentration of power in a political group that is made up of different parties, but that in general terms is driven by the same objective: enrichment via the handling of public funds.
The Episcopal Conference denounced that there is fear in Guatemala and that the Prosecutor’s Office is dominated by a “Foundation against Terrorism”. What impact does this Foundation have on the decisions of the Guatemalan Government?
This Foundation has a huge impact. For example, when the nominating commission —who are basically the deans of the country’s law schools—, were deciding on the candidates list for the president so that he could choose the new Attorney General, when they saw that seven of the 15 postulators refused to vote in favor of the current Attorney General, they raised a legal remedy making it punishable for these people not to vote for her.
At the same time, the Constitutional Court also required them to vote in this way. Finally, the seven postulators who opposed Porras were intimidated and ended up voting in favor of this woman, who was immediately reappointed by the President.
This is to explain part of the co-optation of power, but in general terms what you are seeing is a gigantic concentration of power and the use of it to guarantee impunity to those who at the moment are taking advantage of public funds, but also to benefit those who had already been sanctioned.
For example, Jose Ruben Zamora says: My accuser is a person who the Prosecutor’s Office has retained 4.5 million dollars in his personal accounts. In exchange for prosecuting me, he is going to get the seizure lifted from his accounts.
Other colleagues in Guatemala, including you, are being persecuted. What is your situation? Can you continue to do your job?
Only partially. I am not in Guatemala. I am persecuted by a very corrupt former minister of communications and public works named Alejandro Sinibaldi. His accounts in Switzerland with just over 9 million dollars were seized, in addition to at least 35 large properties in Guatemala. This corruption was covered by the teams that I directed in El Periódico —I was its director for 17 years— and then founder of the magazine Contrapoder.
In both media, I would say we covered the operations of this guy meticulously. We established his methods of simulated competitions to award public works contracts. Contracts that allowed the increase in the price of the work once started up to 40%, commission payments, fictitious contract grants, and deceptive supervision.
Sinibaldi accused me, saying that I charged him to have good press coverage. Immediately the reporters who work with me said: good press coverage? We have nine investigative reports in which we demonstrate all that I just told you.
All this hostility against journalism, How is all this hostility against journalism impacting the rest of the colleagues?
The solidarity and determination not to be overwhelmed is impressive. However, I must say that there is also fear. There is major persecution of the press in the departments. I am extremely concerned about what is happening in the regions.
Much of what we see in Nicaragua is happening in Guatemala, albeit on a smaller scale. And in a less structured way. But our greatest fear is that we are on our way to creating a similar model.
Some said they were worried about becoming a “Nicaragua 2.0”. Why is this scenario so feared?
Because practically all security disappears. We are horrified that Nicaraguans who are accused by the regime have practically no right to defense, nor are their cases publicized. At least we still partially have that in Guatemala, and we must defend it vigorously. Here we have co-opted courts and judicial system, but there are still certain loopholes through which one can be saved.
For us to go down this road is extremely dangerous because we see ourselves reflecting that terrible Nicaraguan situation. When we hear that media such as the radio stations of the Diocese of Matagalpa are being closed, or small cable television outlets are being persecuted and closed in very small towns, there is the indication of imposing a single discourse and allowing society only to be informed through official sources.
How have the other sectors, like private enterprise, reacted?
Although in the case of Jose Ruben they were initially demanding due process, they soon seemed to fall in line (with the government authorities). Power is very concentrated in Guatemala. The business community itself, which is very strong, appears to be in between intimidated and pleased with the way the government is handling public affairs.
Frightened because a government administrative decision can affect interests that represent many millions of dollars. But, on the other hand, pleased that in general terms our elites have never appropriated democratic values.