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José Rubén Zamora, Guatemala

World Press Freedom Hero (Honoured in 2000)

Photo by IPI/David Reali, 2010

José Rubén Zamora Marroquín is the founder and former editor in chief of the independent daily newspaper Siglo Veintiuno (21st Century), which was known under his editorship for its exposés of corruption, drug trafficking and human rights violations. Zamora and Siglo Veintiuno were in the forefront of a civilian resistance that forced President Jorge Serrano Elias to relinquish his post after he attempted to seize dictatorial power in 1993.

Born on Aug.19, 1956, Zamora began his career in journalism at the age of 17 as a reporter for the family newspaper, La Hora. After studying industrial engineering and business administration, he returned to journalism and founded the news and documentary production company ANC in 1986.

When Zamora founded Siglo Veintiuno in 1990, the daily quickly established itself as Guatemala’s most daring newspaper, tackling such taboo subjects as government corruption, the drug trade, human rights violations by the army, national security and guerrilla activity. The paper also started a campaign for tax and judicial reforms and against the privileges of the establishment. From the beginning Zamora and his staff were the targets of harassment, death threats and physical attacks because of their investigative reporting.

In May 1993 when President Serrano suspended the constitution, dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and imposed a comprehensive censorship of the media, national police units surrounded the offices of Siglo Veintiuno and threatened drastic measures if the paper did not allow censors to enter the office. Zamora responded with panache by altering the masthead of the daily to Siglo Catorce (14th Century), likening Serrano’s imposition to a return to the Dark Ages, and running solid blocks of ink in place of censored stories about the president’s actions. While army troops seized copies and burned them in the streets, Zamora secretly faxed the original uncensored editions around the world.

Siglo Veintiuno’s coverage of Serrano’s actions helped fuel international condemnation of the constitutional coup, ultimately forcing the president to resign and flee to El Salvador. However, Serrano’s flight did not end the attacks against Zamora. In 1995 he was followed in his car by two people who drove him off the road and threatened to kill him after Siglo Veintiuno published allegations that leading army officers had forged links to organized crime.
In February 1996 he received several anonymous death threats after the paper published the transcript of a videotaped interview with an exiled former army officer, who accused a group of high-ranking officers of drug trafficking, car thefts and ordering the assassination of political opponents.

Zamora resigned as editor in chief of Siglo Veintiuno in May 1996 over conflicts with the board of directors. Two days later he was the target of a grenade attack in Guatemala City. Unidentified assailants in a moving vehicle threw two grenades at his car, which was parked in front of the restaurant at which he was dining. Zamora, who was not hurt in the incident, believed that the attack was intended to prevent him from founding another daily newspaper and as a warning to his successor at Siglo Veintiuno.

With donations from 125 citizens committed to freedom of the press, Zamora launched his new daily, el Periódico, on Nov. 6, 1996. Although the government of President Alvaro Arzú tried to drive el Periódico into bankruptcy by depriving it of official advertising, the new daily has fared well. Acquired in 1997 by the publishing house that owns Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s largest newspaper, el Periódico has been able to maintain its independence while continuing its critical coverage. Thanks in part to Zamora’s influence, the once unsubstantial Guatemalan press today refuses to be intimidated and is becoming increasingly independent and professional.