One of Guatemala’s most high-profile journalists was convicted on Wednesday of money laundering and sentenced to up to six years in prison, in a trial denounced by human rights and free speech advocates as another sign of the deteriorating rule of law.
The journalist, José Rubén Zamora, was tried on charges of financial wrongdoing that prosecutors say focused on his business dealing, not his journalism. He was acquitted of blackmail and influence peddling, and fined about $40,000.
Mr. 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.
For activists defending press freedom and civil rights in Guatemala, Wednesday’s verdict and sentencing, delivered by a panel of judges, was another blow to the country’s wobbly democratic health, as the government and its allies have taken repeated aim at key institutions and independent news outlets.
Mr. Zamora, 66, denied any wrongdoing and accused the government of trying to silence its critics.
“We have a dictatorship,’’ he told reporters during a brief break before the verdict was rendered inside a courtroom in Guatemala City, the capital. “A veiled, multiparty, tyrannical dictatorship.”
Mr. Zamora had faced many more years in prison, but the judges found there was insufficient evidence to support the other charges.
Rafael Curruchiche, who leads the special prosecutor’s office against impunity that handled the case, told reporters on Wednesday that it would appeal the judges’ decision and seek a 40-year prison sentence.
“If he said he was fighting corruption, now he is part of that corruption,’’ Mr. Curruchiche said. “He is corrupt.”
Groups that defend press freedom condemned the trial’s outcome.
Mr. Zamora’s conviction serves “as a stark testament to the erosion of freedom of speech in the country and the desperate attempts of President Alejandro Giammattei’s government to criminalize journalism,” said Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
The trial occurred as the country was heading toward a presidential election this month that has already been plagued by irregularities, with four opposition candidates disqualified by the courts.
“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 before the verdict, yet another “step toward the consolidation of a dictatorship” in Guatemala.
Unlike other Central American countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador, however, where democracy has also eroded, 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.”
During his tenure running elPeriódico, Mr. Zamora was sued scores of times by the government, mostly for slander, as a result of the newspaper’s coverage. But his most serious legal confrontation with the authorities was set in motion in July, when he was held in pretrial detention and charged with crimes.
As part of the prosecution’s case, elPeriódico’s bank accounts were frozen, hobbling its finances, before it 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 had 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, the Foundation Against Terrorism, which supports the attorney general. Critics say it 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 roles 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. Some of those lawyers, he added, “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.
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, 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 it 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 set back efforts to hold the government accountable for its actions, Ms. Méndez, of WOLA, said.
“Who’s going to tell the truth in Guatemala now?” she said. “There will be a huge void left.”
The country is preparing for national elections on June 25, which civil rights groups say have already been tarnished.
Among the opposition candidates barred from taking part 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 his 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.
On Wednesday, Mr. Zamora made it clear that he would appeal the verdict and take his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States. “All my rights have been violated,” he said during a closing statement in court.