IACHR and RFOE Express Concern Over the Conviction of José Rubén Zamora in Guatemala

June 21, 2023

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Washington, D.C. — The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (RFOE) expressed their graved concern over the six-year prison sentence given to journalist José Rubén Zamora in Guatemala. The IACHR and the RFOE urged the State to respect the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press and to refrain from using punitive power to intimidate people who speak out critically against the Government.

According to public information, on June 14, the Eighth Criminal Sentencing Court sentenced José Rubén Zamora, president and founder of the media outlet El Periódico, to six years in prison for the crime of money laundering. El Periódico has become one of the most prominent media outlets in the country after exposing cases of corruption and the abuse of power in recent years.

Since Mr. Zamora's arrest on July 29, 2022, the IACHR and the RFOE have received information on violations of due process guarantees, the prolonged use of pretrial detention, and serious limitations to his right to defense. According to the information they received, in a period of nine months, Zamora had to change legal representation on several occasions, going through as many as ten different attorneys due to harassment, threats, and even the filing of criminal complaints against those representing him. In addition, the court did not admit the evidence presented by the journalist's counsel during the evidence hearing, among other matters.

The IACHR drew attention to the criminalization of José Rubén Zamora in the report on Guatemala included in Chapter IV.B of its 2022 Annual Report, in which it noted with concern that the context of violations of judicial independence in the country has contributed to worsening the climate of censorship and the intense judicialization of people who play a significant role in public life and contribute to the democratic debate in Guatemala. This is particularly true of human rights defenders and media workers.

In recent months, the RFOE became aware of the opening of a criminal investigation against journalists and columnists of El Periódico, who were charged with the alleged crime of obstruction of justice due to a series of newspaper articles covering the Zamora court case. The RFOE noted that Mr. Zamora also faces two other criminal charges, one of them for the alleged crime of conspiracy to obstruct justice and the other for the alleged continuous use of false documents. Mr. Zamora has been the beneficiary of precautionary measures from the IACHR since 2003 for reasons relating to his work as a journalist and the exercise of freedom of expression in Guatemala.

Given the seriousness of this context, another matter of concern relates to the announcement on May 12, 2023, that El Periódico would be closing permanently due to the obstacles to normal operations that have arisen since Zamora's arrest, the escalation of judicial persecution targeting team members, and political and economic pressures.

After emphatically denying the allegations in this press release, the State of Guatemala assured the IACHR that there is respect for freedom of expression in the country, and at no time has the criminal justice system been used to target journalists or media outlets in relation to their work. On this point, the State claimed that the money-laundering conviction against José Rubén Zamora is not related to the right to freedom of expression but is instead a case of a citizen being brought to justice for illegal acts that have been proven in court. It also emphasized that Zamora's sentence is a first-instance decision, is not yet final, and can still be appealed.

The IACHR and the RFOE observed that the use of criminal law as a form of reprisal and intimidation against journalists and other media workers investigating matters of great public interest constitutes an indirect means of censorship. In this regard, they noted that the use of State power and ordinary institutional mechanisms to put pressure on journalists and the media, threaten them, or punish them in response to their lines of investigation contravenes international standards on freedom of expression. As the IACHR has already pointed out, "when the law is used with the purpose of eliminating or pacifying criticism or dissidence, it amounts to persecution and not a legitimate attempt to reinforce the Rule of Law."

In response, the IACHR and the RFOE urged the State of Guatemala to adapt its internal practices to the current jurisprudence on freedom of expression, and called on the competent judicial authorities to resolve the case in accordance with these international human rights standards. Also, in line with its previous pronouncements and the recommendations made in the IACHR's last annual report on Guatemala, the IACHR called on the State to refrain from using criminal proceedings against journalists and/or media outlets that could have a negative impact on the circulation of information that is of public interest.

Finally, the IACHR once again expressed the willingness of the RFOE to conduct an on-site visit to supervise the precautionary measures in favor of Mr. Zamora.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 131/23

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