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A court in Guatemala has sentenced a prominent journalist to 6 years in jail

Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, president of the newspaper <em>El Periódico</em>, arrives handcuffed and under police escort to listen to a Guatemalan court's ruling in a case against him, at the Palace of Justice in Guatemala City, on Wednesday.
Johan Ordoñez
/
AFP via Getty Images
Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, president of the newspaper El Periódico, arrives handcuffed and under police escort to listen to a Guatemalan court's ruling in a case against him, at the Palace of Justice in Guatemala City, on Wednesday.

One of Guatemala's most prominent journalists has been sentenced to six years in prison for money laundering, in a trial condemned by press freedom and human rights advocates.

José Rubén Zamora founded Guatemala's El Periódico newspaper in 1996. The paper went on to become one of the most respected investigative outfits in the country.

But last year, after it published reports uncovering corruption in government contracts, Zamora was arrested.

On Wednesday, a panel of judges found Zamora guilty of money laundering related to allegations over funds of nearly $40,000.

Zamora, 66, denied any wrongdoing and said the money came from the sale of a painting and would help fund the newspaper. He argued that the court was stacked against him because he had become a thorn in the side of the government.

In addition to prison time, Zamora received a fine of more than $38,000, but he was cleared of other charges of blackmail and influence peddling.

With Zamora under investigation and in prison, the combined political and financial pressures eventually forced the newspaper to closein May.

Speaking to journalists outside the court before the sentencing, Zamora said he maintained his innocence and claimed the government "treated us like criminals, they destroyed evidence."

The Committee to Protect of Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group, described the conviction as "shameful" and a "stark testament to the erosion of freedom of speech in the country."

More than 20 journalists have fled the country in the past year, according to a journalists' collective that uses the hashtag #NoNosCallarán, Spanish for "They won't silence us."

The government of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has insisted there is freedom of the press in Guatemala and denied any political motivation in the Zamora case, according to news reports.

Rights groups in Guatemala say the courts are being used by the country's elite to settle political scores. They say the Zamora trial is a symbol of Guatemala's decaying democracy.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.