! FIRST AND FOREMOST ! THE WORLD STUDENTS SOCIETY - for every subject in the world, is the exclusive and eternal ownership of every student of Guatemala just as it is the exclusive ownership of every student in the world.

JOSE RUBEN ZAMORA - A GUATEMALAN Journalist - has often exposed corruption in the central American country.

In 2008 he was kidnapped, beaten and drugged by unknown assailants, before being dumped outside the capital.

Some 15 years + later, he is still being targeted. On June 14th, a court sentenced Mr. Zamora to six years in prison for money-laundering and ordered him to pay a $40,000 fine.

He was cleared of charges of blackmail and influence peddling. The case is widely considered spurious. It is a worrying sign of eroding press freedom ahead of the first round of a presidential election on June 25th. 

Alejandro Giammattei, the outgoing president, insists the trial had nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with Mr. Zamora's business activities, which included asking an acquaintance to deposit $40,000 in cash in a bank for him.

Mr. Zamora argues that the use of cash was necessary to protect donors from the ire of the authorities. EL Periodico, the newspaper Mr. Zamora founded in 1996, closed in May -he claims that the authorities repeatedly intimidated its donors and journalists [ the government denies these allegations].

Mr. Zamora's punishment is '' a very bad signal for democracy,'' says Carolina Jimenez Sandoval, the head of the Washington Office of Latin America [WOLA], an American think-tank.

Ahead of this year's presidential elections, the right to take part in politics has also been ''severely violated'', she notes.

The country's electoral authorities have made apparently arbitrary decisions to bar candidates, including Carlos Pineda, a businessman who became the surprise front-runner after campaigning on TikTok, a video app.  

This is part of a broader trend of democratic backsliding. Several countries in Central America are moving in the direction of Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua, the original model for despotism in the region.

The rule of law is quickly eroding in EL Salvador under Nayib Bukele, its millennial president. Unlike these two other nations,  though Guatemala is not dominated by one individual. 

Rather, its political, military and economic elites entrench their hold on power through a system described by WOLA as ''corporate authoritarianism''.

Democracy started to unravel in Guatemala in 2019 when the then-president, Jimmy Morales, disbanded CICIG, a UN-created anti-impunity task-force. This trend deepened under his successor, Mr. Giammattei.

Threatened by questionable legal challenges, many lawyers and judges have fled the country in recent years. Since November, two dozen journalists have gone into exile.

When interviewed in May the founder of EL Periodico was handcuffed, well dressed and gaunt after ten months in a cell. He correctly guessed that he would receive between five and seven years in jail.

Adding that Guatemalan democracy has always been imperfect but it had significantly worsened of late. ''We are passing a threshold, and it will be progressively more difficult to practise journalism in Guatemala,'' he sighed.

He believes that the article that particularly irked the authorities before his arrest was a report on irregularities surrounding the government's covid-19 vaccine deal.

Marielos Monzon, who is part of the media collective called NoNosCallaran [ They will not silence Us], believes the sentencing of the ''emblematic'' Mr. Zamora is a ''clear message'' to anyone who practices her profession.

Ms. Monzon thinks the situation is the worst in the country since 1996, when the post-civil war era began.

'' They are leaving us two paths,'' she says. '' The path to exile or the path to prison.''

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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