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Renowned journalist arrested in Guatemala's political crackdown

CHERYL CORLEY, HOST:

This weekend, the Guatemalan justice department arrested renowned journalist Jose Ruben Zamora, the publisher of one of the country's leading newspapers. And as Maria Martin reports, analysts say it's one more sign of the closing of democratic spaces in that Central American country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

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MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: Dozens of journalists supporting the crusading publisher of the daily El Periodico, Jose Ruben Zamora, gathered outside Guatemala City's tribunal building Saturday. They chanted, no matter what they do, they can't silence us.

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MARTIN: For decades, various Guatemalan presidents have tried to silence Zamora. In 2003, 2008 and 2014, he's been beaten, kidnapped, left for dead on the side of a highway and had spurious legal charges brought against him.

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MARTIN: The latest attack against the award-winning publisher started Friday afternoon in Guatemala City, when police and justice department security forces raided El Periodico's offices and entered Zamora's home. He and those inside, including two visiting grandchildren, were held for hours incommunicado behind a locked gate.

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MARTIN: Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, tried unsuccessfully to enter the residence.

JORDAN RODAS: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: Rodas told NPR, today, it's Jose Ruben Zamora. Tomorrow, it could be any journalist in Guatemala, adding the country is in danger of becoming what he called Nicaragua 2.0.

RODAS: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: Just before midnight, security forces escorted Zamora to the tribunal building and charged him with money laundering, blackmail and influence peddling. The arrest came on the same day the Guatemalan press association released a report on press freedoms, highlighting a huge spike in attacks on journalists.

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MARTIN: Some of the crowd shouted, you aren't alone as Zamora told the crowd his arrest is part of a conspiracy by the forces of corruption in Guatemala.

JOSE RUBEN ZAMORA: (Through interpreter) Since I started as a journalist in 1989, I've denounced that we live in a narco-klepto-dictatorship that has us kidnapped and cowered. El Periodico has been a small counterweight that dared face that power.

RAFAEL CURRUCHICHE: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: The man who ordered Zamora's arrest has just been named by the U.S. State Department to their list of corrupt and undemocratic actors. Rafael Curruchiche is the head of the justice department's anticorruption office. He says his department has credible evidence Zamora's guilty of the crimes with which he's been charged.

CURRUCHICHE: (Through interpreter) I'm focusing the investigation against Mr. Zamora on him as a businessman, not as a journalist, nor against his paper.

MARTIN: From detention, Zamora says he's worried about the future of his paper, El Periodico, and about his own safety in prison, where he has enemies. Zamora's begun a hunger strike to show he rejects the charges against him. He'll be arraigned in Guatemala City on Monday. For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Martin