Guatemalan Editor Names Attackers

Six months after being held at gunpoint in his own home while intruders threatened his family, the editor of Guatemala's El Periódico newspaper has published, in print and online, the names of those he claims were his assailants.

José Rubén Zamora says the home invasion was yet another attempt to silence him and his newspaper. He now says his investigation into who was behind the attack has lead to former President Portillo's private military staff and the country's State Department.

The online version of El Periódico is carrying images and profiles of the people Zamora claims took part.

On June 24, 2003, 11 armed men and one woman forced their way into Zamora's home and terrorized his family for two hours. A report on the incident was carried on Poynter Online in an article entitled "Fear Tactics Fail to Silence Guatemalan Editor."

As a result, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) called on Alfonso Portillo, then-president of Guatemala, to ensure that the attack on Zamora and his family be "fully and impartially investigated" and those responsible brought to justice. "We urge you to do everything in your power to protect journalists who are exercising their right to inform," the statement read.

Zamora was convinced that such calls, although helpful in highlighting the issue on the international stage, would not help identify those who attacked him. He felt that unless those involved were named and brought to justice, the threat to independent media in his country would continue.

There were claims at the time that Zamora had invented the whole episode for political gain, with some saying that he wanted to run for congress. Others said the visit was a legitimate debt-collection exercise and no violence was used. Zamora's character and private life were examined in detail in the national media.

However, Portillo, who had visited Zamora to express his outrage soon after the incident, gave him access to the government's database of staff photographs, personal details, and departmental details in an effort to help Zamora identify his attackers.

It was an unexpected gesture from the president, who had been the focus of a story published in El Periódico the previous November, which said that Portillo's government was benefiting financially as a direct result of the acceptance of funds from mafia activities, including trafficking in narcotics, kidnapping, and extortion. That item was also covered here on Poynter.

That report was the culmination of eight years of research and set out what many privately suspected, but few had been prepared to say. Zamora knew that publishing such details put him, his family, and his newspaper at risk, but he vowed not to be silenced by intimidation and strong-arm tactics which, in the past, had involved his car being run off the road a number of times and his home being sprayed with bullets.

Then came the attack in June 2003, which, far from silencing Zamora, simply served to reignite his determination to find out who was behind the attack and who authorized it.

Zamora decided to go back to his journalistic roots to try to find out who was responsible. His investigations led him to contacts with close connections to the president's staff, military intelligence, and state security offices. Zamora claims one, a specialist in the president's counter intelligence agency, was the man who held his 17-year-old son Rodrigo at gunpoint while pretending to execute Zamora.

He also says that another of the attackers worked for the Attorney General. Zamora said the man put a gun to his head three times and pretended to execute him during the two-hour ordeal when Zamora was tied, blindfolded, and forced to kneel on the floor of his own home.

When he completed his dossier, he requested an audience with President Portillo. Zamora says he arrived at the president's office with photographs and documents suggesting that a senior member of Portillo's own staff had played a key role in the attack. Zamora says the president seemed "visibly shaken" by the evidence, but was reluctant to make a public denunciation because, according to Zamora, the former president said he had a short time left in office, and he feared possible reprisals.

Zamora told Portillo that if he failed to denounce the action and the staff he claimed were involved, then Zamora would do so himself.

A few days ago, Zamora made good on his threat and produced the pictures and names of those who carried out the raid on his home in June 2003. Since his findings have been made known, at least one senior officer has been discharged. Zamora is convinced more will follow and is demanding that all face criminal investigations and be brought to justice.

Publishing the details of his attackers was a bold step, but it does raise several issues. Should an editor use his or her own paper to pursue alleged attackers? Is there a danger that a newspaper could lose credibility by such action? Will this really assist other newspapers in similar situations, or could it lead to more sinister methods to try to limit press freedom? Tell us what you think.

  • David Brewer

    Former managing editor of BBC News Online and CNN Interactive Europe, Middle East and Africa. Now assisting independent media in emerging democracies with the BBC World Service Trust (BBC WST) and the Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF).


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