Press association leaders brave hostile situation to aid threatened Guatemalan publisher

By Edward Seaton

In our complex world, The Mercury’s editors can sometimes feel the heat. The heat seldom burns.

That’s not the case for some Latin American editors. Among the most courageous of those I know personally is Jose Ruben Zamora.

This is his story.

Jose Ruben’s daily is elPeriodico in Guatemala City, and he sees his role as the agent of change, working to eliminate the corruption that pervades his country.

Or, as he puts it, “Journalism as the door to the apocalypse.”

As a result, he has spent the last 24 years flirting with death as well as the fragmentation of his family. He sees Guatemala, a nominal democracy that elects presidents every four years without re-election, as a “clepto-dictatorship that is born and dies every four years and co-governs with crime.”

His education as an engineer took him into business originally. But when his country emerged from military rule in the 1980s, he saw that if democracy was to take root, it needed a bold newspaper willing to investigate and print views from all sides.

Perhaps he had this in his genes. A grandfather, once vice president of the country, had founded a daily paper in 1920 with similar objectives of change and building the nation.

Jose Ruben’s first paper, Siglo XXI (21st Century), began receiving international attention in 2003, when was censored by President Jorge Serrano, who had suspended the constitution.

Jose Ruben responded by altering the masthead of the daily to Siglo Catorce (14th Century) and running solid blocks of ink in place of censored stories.

A week ago I went to Guatemala, once again, to help Jose Ruben.

I have now been to his country nine times, often on his behalf.

This time the threats aren’t as deadly, although when my colleagues and I were holding a press conference, an unknown assailant fired gunshots at the home of Jose Ruben’s attorney.

It was difficult to view that incident as an isolated event, since lawsuits filed by the country’s president and vice president against Jose Ruben – lawsuits defended by his attorney – were among the issues being discussed.

Jose Ruben’s problems today — so far — seen relatively minor compared to those in the past.

In 1995, when his paper published allegations that the military had links to organized crime, his car was forced off the road and he was threatened with death by two thugs linked to the Guatemalan military.

In 1996 two grenades were thrown at his car. He was unhurt, but later, 30 shots were fired at him after he visited a local hospice.

Shortly after these attempts, he was asked by his board of directors to leave the paper, which had become very successful.

Within months, he persuaded 125 investors who believed in his stand on the role of the press to back him in a new daily, elPeriodico. Among them —now hard to believe— was the current president, Oscar Perez Molina, a retired general who once served as director of military intelligence.

Again, Jose Ruben’s newest newspaper began exposing corruption, drug trafficking and human rights violations.

In 2003, during the presidency of Alfonso Portillo, Jose Ruben and his family were taken hostage in their home for nearly three hours. His children were beaten and he was stripped and forced to kneel in front of them at gunpoint.

One gang member told him, “If you value your children, stop bothering the people above. I don’t know who you’ve annoyed high up the ladder, but we have orders that someone up high despises you. Whatever you do, do not report this.”

Jose Ruben later wrote that during the first 40 minutes of that ordeal, he believed he and his family were all going to die. The next hour-and-a-half, he thought he was the one who would die.

The last 40 minutes, he was sure his wife and son would be kidnapped. They weren’t.

Jose Ruben today believes President Portillo was behind the attack, but Portillo unexpectedly visited him shortly afterward and blamed the Army. Portillo also gave him access to the government’s photographic database.

Jose Ruben published photos of the 12 attackers in elPeriodico, and they included a senior member of Portillo’s staff, an employee of the attorney general and a counter-intelligence specialist. Now five of the perpetrators are in prison, including one member of the military.

President Portillo eventually fled to Mexico and is now being held in the United States, accused of laundering $70 million of Guatemalan money through U.S. banks.

In 2008, Jose Ruben was kidnapped and beaten after enjoying a cocktail at a bar with his cousin. He was drugged and left unconscious and almost naked in a garbage dump some 26 miles outside Guatemala City.

He could have died, but a woman who saw him walked three miles to get help. His wife and children believed he had been killed.

There have been many other threats, attacks and boycotts. He is often vilified in the pro-government media.

A week ago, our five-member delegation from the Inter American Press Association held a joint two-hour meeting with Guatamalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti.

They said they had brought criminal charges against Jose Ruben because he authored stories and columns alleging corruption in their administration.

In particular, the newspaper had focused on lavish properties owned by the vice president – who had come from a modest background and had limited earnings as a congresswoman and then as vice president.

They denied the corruption and were especially irked by mention of their children in the exposes. The vice president said she made her money as owner of a beauty salon.

Our concerns included the lawsuits, an advertising boycott and a tax audit of the newspaper.

We had limited success, although the criminal complaints were dropped after we announced we would be coming to Guatemala. 

We had pointed out that the Guatemalan constitution prohibits criminal charges in such circumstances.

But the president and vice president said they were re-filing the suits with an Honor Tribunal that deals with freedom of expression— but does not impose criminal sanctions.

President Perez Molina claimed the newspaper was not getting government advertising because it has a circulation of only 2,000 copies —less that 10 percent of the true distribution.

We also expressed concern that the police protection Jose Ruben had been receiving since the 2003 attack at his home had been removed late last year.

It had been ordered by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights.

We not only met with the president and vice president, but also with the attorney general, the human rights prosecutor, a congresswoman, and various journalists and civic organizations – including Transparency International.

We are hopeful. Sort of.

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