When the newspaper elPeriodico was founded in Guatemala in 1996, the country was emerging from a brutal civil war, and there was a feeling that a small space for free thought might be opening.
That opening closed this week when elPeriodico, which made a name for itself and became a frequent target for trying to hold Guatemala’s governments to account, published its final digital edition.
The newspaper’s demise followed the jailing of its publisher after he was accused by the government of financial crimes and the freezing of its assets as part of the case, which dealt a financial blow and led to the suspension of the print edition in December.
The closing of elPeriodico is the latest setback for Guatemala’s increasingly brittle democracy, civil liberties groups say, as President Alejandro Giammattei steers the country toward greater repression, targeting critics, including the news media, opposition politicians and the judiciary.
ElPeriodico was founded during a more hopeful, if uncertain, time, not long before the signing of peace accords in December 1996. The agreement put an end to a civil war in the Central American country, which had lasted 36 years and left hundreds of thousands dead or disappeared.
The conflict, which is considered a genocide, decimated the nation’s Indigenous population and pit neighbor against neighbor.
As elPeriodico got off the ground, there were no clear lines between what was publishable and what was still unspeakable. The country was recovering from a legacy of dictatorial military governments and the prosecution and targeted killings of intellectuals and dissidents.
“We wanted to be irreverent, not necessarily confrontational,” said Luis Aceituno, who was one of three dozen remaining staff members at elPeriodico, whose newsroom at its high point in 2012 had 400 employees. But over the years, elPeriodico has drawn the ire of the country’s ruling elite.
Since Mr. Giammattei took office in 2020, elPeriodico had published scores of investigative articles focused on government corruption within his administration, including within the prosecutor’s office and the country’s high court.
“Despite the fatigue, the severe adverse conditions, the humiliation and the derision, I will not cease in my fight for freedom and democracy in Guatemala,” José Rubén Zamora, the newspaper’s publisher wrote in a final editorial from jail.
Mr. Zamora has been detained since last July after he was charged with money laundering, blackmail and influence peddling. He has denied any wrongdoing and has called the charges a “persecution.”
The government has said the case against Mr. Zamora has nothing to do with his work as a journalist, but his dealings as a businessman.
“If you’re a journalist, do you have the right to commit criminal acts because you are a journalist?” Mr. Giammattei asked during an interview with a Colombian radio station in January. “Does journalism grant you immunity?”
Nine other journalists at the newspaper are also under investigation by the government, some of them because they wrote about Mr. Zamora’s case, which prosecutors have said constitutes obstruction of justice.
Some journalists at elPeriodico have fled Guatemala, fearing legal repercussions because of their work.
“The feeling came that everything was falling, everything was leading us to disappear,” said Mr. Aceituno, in an interview on Sunday in his Guatemala City home, which was filled with books and movie posters. “We went from being a promising news organization to an uncomfortable one that struggled everyday.”
The shuttering of elPeriodico “is a horrible sign for independent journalism in Guatemala and in Central America,” said Eduardo Suárez, head of editorial at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in England. “What we are seeing in Guatemala is the latest example of how press freedom is eroding in the region.”
In Nicaragua, another Central American nation where democratic institutions have come under assault, most of the staff of La Prensa, a newspaper that has published articles challenging the increasingly repressive government, has left the country.
“Our experience shows that these strongmen learn from each other,” Mr. Suárez said. “They use the same laws and techniques to put journalists under pressure.”
From its very start, elPeriodico was not shy about taking on the government.
Its first cover story, on Nov. 6, 1996, reported that the government at the time was pushing a law that would benefit a high-ranking military officer. Mr. Aceituno remembers an enthusiastic audience and a team buoyed by the sense of embarking on a collective adventure.
“There was great excitement in going to the newsroom,” said Mr. Aceituno, who oversaw the paper’s cultural coverage and its Sunday edition. “We were together, and there was also a context of people defending freedom of expression.”
As part of Guatemala’s road back to democracy, an international panel of investigators, starting in 2013 and backed by the United Nations, exposed widespread graft that targeted the country’s elite, leading to charges against former presidents and ministers, legislators, judges and business owners.
For elPeriodico and other independent media, it was a moment of optimism that did not last.
The progress in battling corruption in Guatemala has seen a setback in recent years and independent judges and prosecutors have become targets of recent governments. Since 2018, 35 judges, anti-corruption prosecutors and their lawyers have gone into exile.
ElPeriodico’s investigations into abuses of power and graft under various administrations has regularly put it in the government’s cross hairs.
Over the past 10 years it has been the subject of many tax audits by the revenue service. Mr. Zamora, an internationally acclaimed journalist who won an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, has been sued scores of times by the government, including a dozen ongoing claims filed by a former president and vice president.
Now the country is barreling toward presidential elections in June amid concerns that opposition candidates will not have a fair chance to run, according to international organizations.
And there will be at least one less news media outlet around to cover the race.
The front page of elPeriodico’s last Sunday edition was a report on nepotism in one of the largest hospitals in Guatemala, where key posts were assigned to relatives of the director. On Monday, its last day, the newspaper’s website led with an investigation about the country’s electoral authority buying equipment from a company owned by a congressman.
“What disappears is the idea that freedom of expression is the basis of democracy,” Mr. Aceituno said. “We’d like to be a metaphor for what is happening in Guatemala.’’