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Mission to Guatemala will investigate senior officials' complaints with editor

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) announced today that it will send an international delegation to Guatemala next month to take an on-site look into the situation involving senior officials of the Central American country and the editor of the newspaper elPeriódico, José Rubén Zamora, against whom several lawsuits have been filed in apparent reprisal for his publication of denunciations of wrongdoing in the public administration.

Last Friday Guatemala's President Otto Pérez Molina announced that he had dropped a criminal lawsuit against Zamora on charges of “coercion, extortion, violation of the Constitution and contempt of the chairmen of government entities,” although he said that he will continue legal action in the civil ambit. He will do so by adhering to what is covered by the Law on Transmission of Thought, which orders the establishment of special courts to hear conflicts with journalists.

President Pérez Molina's decision leaves without effect an arrest order that could have been enforced against Zamora, to whom a judge imposed a ruling restricting his ability to leave the country. The civil action planned by the President would be adopted by Guatemalan Vice President Ingrid Roxana Baldetti Elías, who managed to have a court issue a physical protection order against Zamora, prohibiting him from “disturbing or intimidating the claimant and any member of her family.”

The legal actions against Zamora caused surprise given the country's Constitution, which indicates that “publications that contain denunciations, criticisms or imputations against public officials or employees (of the government) for acts carried out in the exercise of their posts do not constitute a crime or an offense.”

The chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Claudio Paolillo, said, “The actions taken out against José Rubén Zamora lead us to conclude that all this, denial of official advertising and lawsuits by the President and Vice President, means that in fact it is an attempt to silence a voice which may be very critical but is a voice that has every right to express itself in a democracy.”

Since last year, following the publication in elPeriódico of investigations into alleged wrongdoing in the public administration, Zamora has been complaining of governmental persecution for his editorial stance and his coverage of corruption in the government. He says that in addition to the legal action this has been reflected in online attacks on his Web site, the withdrawal of official advertising, promotion of a boycott by private sector advertisers and discrediting campaigns to remove credibility in his denunciations.

The IAPA said that the court ruling in favor of the Vice President, was a “novel form of censorship, an order that reinvents the crime of contempt,” thrown out in Guatemala in 2006.

Paolillo, editor of the Montevideo, Uruguay, weekly Búsqueda, announced that the IAPA is organizing an international mission to Guatemala for the third week in February “with the intent of meeting with the parties involved,” and dealing with other aspects regarding press freedom and violence against journalists in that country.

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