Guatemalan journalist receives prestigious award from prison

Global Voices photomontage. Photo by Jose R. Zamora in Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0 DEED)

This story was written by Simón Antonio Ramón in Prensa Comunitaria on May 14, 2024. An edited version is republished in Global Voices under a media agreement.

The Board of Trustees of the foundation created by the late journalist, writer and Nobel prize winner, Gabriel García Márquez, awarded the Gabo 2024 Awards for Excellence in Journalism to Guatemalan journalist Jose Rubén Zamora Marroquín.

The 13 journalists, writers and scholars on the Gabo Foundation's Board recognized Zamora as “the paradigm of an investigative journalist and possibly the ultimate symbol of the fight against corruption in Latin American journalism”.

The decision was also taken in “virtue of his more than three decades of tenacious and courageous professional work whose driving force has been to unveil the corruption and human rights abuses that have plagued Guatemala, for which he has been imprisoned for the past year and eight months,” according to the Foundation's minutes.

“This recognition we give today to Jose Rubén Zamora extends far beyond him as an individual. He symbolizes the critical juncture facing the democracies of Guatemala and other Latin American countries,” the Gabo Foundation's Board of Trustees said.

#Now Jose Rubén Zamora (@ChepeZamora) is awarded the Recognition of Excellence of the #PremioGabo 2024.

The journalist and founder of @elperiodico completes on May 14 655 days in prison since the Public Prosecutor's Office of Consuelo Porras subjected him to a prosecution.

The Gabo Award is an initiative held in Medellín Colombia since 2014 and created by Colombian journalist and Nobel Prize in Literature Gabriel García Márquez. It proposes, according to its website, “models and references for Ibero-American journalism”, to encourage “the search for excellence, innovation, rigor and ethical coherence among journalists and media working in Spanish and Portuguese”.

Doing journalism in authoritarian contexts

Journalist Jose Rubén Zamora was born in Guatemala in 1956. He is the grandson of Clemente Marroquín Rojas, founder of the newspaper La Hora, which was created more than 104 years ago. He is an industrial engineer and, between 1988 and 1989, he directed the TV news program Siete Días. In 1990 he founded the now defunct newspaper Siglo Veintiuno.

In 1996 he founded the newspaper elPeriódico, which he presided until its closure in May 2023, after Alejandro Giammattei's government led its financial strangulation.

He and his family have received threats for his journalistic work exposing corruption by officials, some of them with alleged links to organized crime.

In 1993, he faced media censorship during Jorge Serrana Elías‘ administration and his self-coup also known as the “Serranazo”. At that time, Zamora replaced the name of the written media he directed, Siglo XXI, with Siglo XIV, as a reference to the Middle Ages and the setback that the measure meant for freedom of expression.

During the government of Ramiro De León Carpio, on August 30, his birthday, he was shot by unknown assailants in front of the Hospicio del Tío Juan, in Zone 10 in Guatemala City.

During the presidency of Alfonso Portillo, in June 2003, a group of 12 armed men, who were later identified as members of the Presidential General Staff, raided his home for about two hours. They also assaulted his children, and his family later left the country.

A similar incident occurred in 2008, but during the government of Álvaro Colom. In an interview with the media outlet Plaza Pública, Zamora said he was kidnapped by people hired by Carlos Quintanilla, Colom's former security chief.

But it was during the government of Otto Pérez Molina that his newspaper's suffocation began. The former president withdrew the advertising contracted by the government to affect it economically.

President Alejandro Giammattei withdrew advertising completely in 2023, including a group of businessmen who, under alleged threats, withdrew the advertising space they had with elPeriódico.

Photo by Emmanuel Andrés used with permission

Awards for his career in journalism

In 1995, he received the María Moors Cabot Award and the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for exposing criminal links with governing powers. In 2000 he was listed as one of the 50 “International Heroes of Freedom of Expression” by the International Press Institute.

On the day of the journalist, November 30, 2021, the Association of Journalists of Guatemala (APG) honored him as a journalist. They also acknowledged several other journalists and media outlets that day.

Judicial persecution

On July 29, 2022, he was arrested on a warrant issued by Judge Fredy Orellana at the request of the Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity (FECI). Zamora was accused of money laundering, racketeering and influence peddling. On June 14, 2023, he was sentenced to six years for the crime of money laundering, which was later annulled by an appeals court. The date of the new trial has not been set yet.

He has two more open cases: one, for obstruction of justice for publishing articles about his case in El Periódico, in which the FECI asked to investigate him, five other journalists and three columnists. The other is for alleged falsification of signatures on immigration declarations.

The announcement of the award comes a day before his hearing where he will ask the court for parole. It is the same day that marks one year since the closure of the newspaper elPeriódico.

International and national organizations have denounced the constant violations of his human rights and the inhumane conditions of his detention. They have asked the government to guarantee his rights and freedom of the press in Guatemala.

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