Guatemalan authorities have arrested award-winning journalist José Rubén Zamora on charges of extortion, money laundering and influence peddling.

The president of the elPeriódico newspaper was arrested on July 29, The New York Times reported. The arrest was "the latest move by Guatemalan authorities to stifle political dissent and crush attempts to expose graft," wrote Times reporter Oscar Lopez. U.S. President Joe Biden had been trying to end corruption in Central America, Lopez noted.

Zamora had received the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia University and the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Lopez recalled.

On July 30, the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists published a call for the release of Zamora. "Judicial persecution against journalists is a mechanism of intimidation, and authorities in Guatemala need to put an end to their campaign to intimidate and threaten the press," said Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, the organization's advocacy director. The organization quoted the staff of Zamora's newspaper as saying his arrest was in retaliation for coverage of President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras.

'Press freedom is essential to democracy'

"Safeguarding press freedom is essential to democracy," tweeted Brian Nichols, assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs at the U.S.

Department of State. He called for "full respect of due process" in the case of the editor.

The Guatemalan government's Public Ministry posted a response on Twitter. The ministry insisted that the arrest of the journalist "was conducted ensuring the protection of his constitutional guarantees, due process, and the rule of law."

The ministry added, "Mr.

Zamora has been arrested on charges of money laundering, extortion, and influence peddling. All charges are unrelated to his profession as a journalist and founder of a newspaper." None of the government's actions were hindering the newspaper's "regular journalism practices," the ministry said.

'Journalism is not a crime'

Congressman Jim McGovern tweeted that he was "deeply concerned" about the arrest.

"Journalism is not a crime!" the Massachusetts Democrat added.

"The world should see the abusive detention of the great journalist José Rubén Zamora in the context of widespread attacks against the western democracy model and the rule of law for the emergence of kleptocratic dictatorships," tweeted Professor Rosental Alves, of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, at the University of Texas at Austin. "It's not an isolated case in Guatemala or the world."

'A masquerade of democracy'

"We are under an authoritarian regime," Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsperson Jordan Rodas told AFP in an interview published on July 31.

He said the country was living under "a masquerade of democracy." Rodas, 53, five-year term was coming to an end this month. He told AFP that he had experienced "tense, oppressive, harassing" relations with the regime.

On May 16, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Porras would not be allowed to enter the United States "due to her involvement in significant corruption." As Guatemala's attorney general, Porras had "repeatedly obstructed and undermined anticorruption investigations in Guatemala to protect her political allies and gain undue political favor," Blinken said.

"Porras’s pattern of obstruction includes reportedly ordering prosecutors in Guatemala’s Public Ministry to ignore cases based on political considerations and firing prosecutors who investigate cases involving acts of corruption," he added. The announcement can be read in its entirety at the State Department website.