Source: AUN News
AUGUST 15, 2015 (IPS) – A growing number of neo-populist leaders of various stripes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador are persecuting independent media organisations, making it harder for journalists to practise their craft there.
The most recent prominent case involved the arrest on July 29 of José Rubén Zamora, the publisher and editor-in-chief of elPeriódico. This Guatemalan media outlet has been most critical of the right-wing president Alejandro Giammattei’s administration since he took office in January 2020.
According to the union of Guatemalan journalists and the reporter’s family, the journalist’s arrest is an obvious case of political persecution because the newspaper’s 1996 founding investigates fraud and mismanagement in the Giammattei administration.
Ramón Zamora, the son of the editor of elPeriódico, who has been detained since his arrest, told IPS from Guatemala City, “I feel it is a case of political persecution and harassment, as well as aggression against free expression and the expression of thought.
An unforeseen case
The 66-year-old journalist, well-known in Guatemala and Central America, has won numerous honours for his investigative reporting for elPeriódico.
Even though the prosecution presented only evidence at the original hearing: “low-quality audio communications that prove nothing,” Ramón claims that Zamora is still accused of money laundering, influence peddling, and racketeering.
On August 9, the preliminary hearing came to a close with the judge’s decision to keep Zamora in pre-trial detention and to proceed with the case. The defence will work to gather evidence to secure his release, while the prosecution has three months to offer more substantial evidence before trying him in court.
Ramón, 32, an anthropologist by training, stated, “We are going to plainly explain as many times as required that this case was staged and that the evidence, or rather the evidence they have, cannot be stretched as far as they are extending it.
He continued by saying that President Giammattei had demonstrated intolerance for criticism of his administration from the start.
We were aware of his irrationality and authoritarian tendencies, but we hadn’t anticipated his extreme behaviour, the man claimed.
Ramón reported that he has been doing well since the arrest, despite having trouble sleeping, and that the newspaper is still being published despite significant challenges brought on by the temporary seizure of its bank accounts and cash flow issues that make it difficult to pay the staff and other expenses.
A decree that gives life to a cybercrime law and could be used as another instrument by the administration to stifle critics was heavily covered by elPeriódico on Friday, August 12.
Access to information
Article 9 of this bill “contravenes open access to sources of information, a right guaranteed by the Constitution; additionally, it contradicts the Law of Broadcasting of Thought, limiting freedom of information,” according to Acción Ciudadana, which was quoted by the newspaper.
Zamora Jr. bemoaned that governments and other de facto forces in Central America limit and persecute journalism, as is the case in Guatemala under Giammattei, El Salvador under Nayib Bukele, and Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega.
He declared that Ortega’s actions in Nicaragua “are a mirror we all have in front of us in the area, disturbing.”
Press freedom is deteriorating.
The independent media is publicly targeted in these three nations, where journalists are subjected to various forms of work-related harassment, persecution, blackmail, intimidation, and restrictions.
After leaving behind decades of political instability and civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the 38 million-person region of Central America now faces significant economic and social difficulties.
Organisations from around the world
According to studies by national and international organisations, harassment or attacks on media outlets that expose corrupt regimes impede further advancement toward democracy.
In this context, the World Press Freedom Index 2022 report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) highlights the declines experienced by Nicaragua, which fell 39 positions in the ranking to 160th place out of 180, and El Salvador, which lost 30 jobs, falling to 112th place.
According to the research, El Salvador experienced one of the steepest decreases in Latin America for the second year.
Additionally, it states that Bukele, a “millennial” leader with an ambiguous ideology and an “authoritarian propensity,” has been utilising the exceedingly risky technique of painting the media as the enemy of the people ever since he assumed office in 2019.
Fifty-one cases involving digital attacks and interference with journalistic work by government agencies, officials, and even ruling party supporters have been documented against the press between January and July 2022, according to the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (Apes).
In press conferences, Bukele frequently accuses the media—and even certain journalists by name—of participating in an opposition scheme to attack the government’s efforts.
Many journalists have left the nation to avoid issues.
According to Serafin Valencia, the Apes Freedom of Expression Rapporteur, at least three of those who have left the country have done so because they were under pressure from government authorities or agencies to identify their information sources.
Valencia stated, “Bukele chose to launch a wave of attacks on the press, not against the entire press, but those media outlets and journalists with a critical editorial line attempting to carry out their work independently.
Nicaragua (160th) had the highest loss in rankings (- 39 places), according to the RSF study, and reached the “red zone” of the Index.
A ruthless crackdown on opposition voices was coupled with the fake election in November 2021 that gave Daniel Ortega his fourth straight term as president; it continues.
According to the report, “the remaining strongholds of the independent press came under attack, and the vast majority of independent journalists were compelled to flee the country under threat of retaliatory prosecution.”
A guerrilla leader is charged with being a despot
Sergio Marn, who over more than 12 years hosted the radio show La Mesa Redonda, was one of the journalists forced to flee Nicaragua.
Marn, who escaped to Costa Rica on June 21, 2021, told IPS from San José that there were “powerful signs” that his arrest was about to happen.
Marn claimed that since Ortega retook office in January 2007 following a first term from 1985 to 1990, the situation in Nicaragua has been and remains intolerable for independent media outlets and reporters.
A leader of the communist guerrilla Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), Ortega defeated the Somoza dynasty’s government in July 1979, which had been in place since the 1930s either directly or through puppet leaders.
However, Ortega’s new power dynamics quickly buried the FSLN’s progressive values of justice and freedom. He made shady deals with Nicaragua’s political and economic elites to establish himself as the country’s strongman, acting dictatorially.
“Ortega started a process of isolating journalists who ask questions that challenge power with his return to power in 2007,” said Marn, 60.
Then, according to Marn, the government erected a “financial wall” by forbidding private companies that supported the Ortega administration to advertise or even to provide governmental advertising to media outlets that were critical of it.
According to him, that is when the first media closures appeared.
The situation became worse
With the large protests against the government that took place in April 2018 and were violently suppressed by the police, military, and paramilitary groups that supported Ortega, the situation deteriorated further.
According to Marn, 300 people perished due to the repression Ortega instigated.
Because of how the media, except pro-government sites, banded together in the face of the crackdown, these events marked a turning point for journalism.
Therefore, Marin continued, “the dictatorship saw us as a critical opponent that must be suppressed.”
Since then, the Ortega administration has shut down critical news organisations and independent media sites, including those run by veteran journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, currently living in exile in Costa Rica.
With the closure of El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa’s government takeover and expulsion of its entire editorial staff, more than 70 journalists have now departed the country, he continued.
In the first week of August, Ortega intensified his pursuit of dissidents and turned his attention to Catholic priests. Police have detained Bishop Rolando Alvarez of the northern country’s Diocese of Matagalpa in the Episcopal Palace since August 4.
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network