For activists defending press freedom and human rights in Guatemala, Wednesday looms as a key gauge of the country’s wobbly democratic health.
In a courtroom in the country’s capital, a verdict is expected in the trial of one of Guatemala’s most high-profile journalists, a case widely seen as another sign of the deteriorating rule of law in the Central American country.
The journalist, José Rubén Zamora, was the founder and publisher of elPeriódico, a leading newspaper in Guatemala that regularly investigated government corruption, including accusations involving the current president, Alejandro Giammattei, and the attorney general, María Consuelo Porras.
He stands trial on charges of financial wrongdoing that prosecutors say focus on his business dealing and not his journalism. A panel of judges will deliver a verdict and, if he is found guilty, will 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 taken repeated aim at key institutions and independent news media outlets.
The trial also comes as the country heads toward 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 broken,” said Ana María Méndez, the Central America director at WOLA, a Washington-based research institute. Mr. Zamora’s case represents, she added, yet another “step toward the consolidation of a dictatorship” in Guatemala.
Unlike other Central American countries, like Nicaragua and El Salvador, where democracy has also eroded, however, power is not concentrated in a family or an individual, Ms. Méndez said.
In Guatemala, she 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 its critics.
“I am a political prisoner,” he told reporters on May 2, the day his trial started. He said he fully expected it would end with a guilty verdict, adding, “I will be sentenced.”
During his tenure running elPeriódico, Mr. Zamora was sued scores of times, mostly for slander, by the government as a result of the newspaper’s coverage.
But his most serious legal confrontation with authorities was set in motion last July, when he was charged with money laundering, influence peddling and blackmail.
As part of the prosecution’s case, elPeriódico’s bank accounts were frozen, hobbling its finances before it finally closed its doors for good last month.
The main witness in the case was a former banker, Ronald Giovanni García Navarijo, who told prosecutors that Mr. Zamora asked him to launder 300,000 Guatemalan quetzales, or nearly $40,000. He also claimed that Mr. Zamora had forced him to place annual paid advertising in the newspaper to avoid receiving unflattering coverage.
But the prosecution did not present any evidence showing that Mr. Zamora had obtained the money illegally. Most of the funds, which Mr. Zamora has said was to pay the salaries of the newspaper’s employees, had come from a businessman who did not want his connection to elPeriódico disclosed for fear of reprisals.
His defense was hampered by various steps taken by prosecutors and a far-right organization that supports the attorney general, the Foundation Against Terrorism, which critics say has tried to intimidate some of Mr. Zamora’s lawyers.
He cycled through nine defense lawyers, and at least four have been charged with obstruction of justice for their role in the case.
“Zamora’s defense has been hamstrung from day one by a revolving door of defense lawyers,” said Stephen Townley, legal director of the TrialWatch initiative at the Clooney Foundation for Justice, a rights group. “Four of his lawyers have been prosecuted by the Guatemalan authorities. Others then seemed not to have access to their predecessors’ materials.”
A judge who had been presiding over the case earlier in the process did not allow Mr. Zamora to present any witnesses and rejected most of the evidence he tried to submit, deeming it irrelevant.
“We have seen,’’ Mr. Zamora said in an interview, “a theater of terror.”
Mr. Zamora’s son, José Carlos Zamora, who is also a journalist, called the trial a “political persecution.’’
For his part, Mr. Giammattei, referring to the case against Mr. Zamora, has said that being a journalist does not give a person the “right to commit criminal acts.’’
Still, his administration has been accused by human rights groups of using the justice system to target anyone who challenges his government.
Corruption and human rights cases have stalled and the justice system has been “hijacked” by a network of corrupt actors, according to a 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 had been threatened because of their work.
When elPeriódico was founded in 1996, Guatemala was entering a more hopeful period following a brutal civil war that lasted nearly four decades and left hundreds of thousands dead or missing. For many weary Guatemalans, there was a feeling that democracy was taking hold and the government would rule with transparency.
A U.N.-backed international panel of investigators spent 12 years working alongside Guatemala’s judiciary to expose graft among the country’s elite, including top government officials and businessmen, before being expelled from the country in 2019 by the previous president whom the panel 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 demise of his newspaper sets back efforts to hold the government accountable for its actions, Ms. Méndez said.
“Who’s going to tell the truth in Guatemala now?” she said. “There will be a huge void left.”
Mr. Zamora’s trial ends as the country prepares for national elections on June 25, which civil rights groups say have already been tarnished after judges in recent months banned four presidential candidates from opposition parties from the vote.
Among those 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 field. Guatemala’s top court removed him from the race on charges that the methods Mr. Pineda’s party used to choose him as its candidate had violated electoral law.
Mr. Zamora’s case has also ensnared journalists simply for covering it. Eight reporters, editors and columnists are being investigated on charges of obstruction of justice after writing about the process for elPeriódico. Most have left Guatemala.
Since Mr. Giammattei took office in January 2020, the Journalists Association of Guatemala has documented 472 cases of harassment, physical attacks, intimidation and censorship against the press.
“You immediately ask yourself, ‘At what point is my coverage 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 accountability, but seen as an unlawful act?’”