“Financial Panic” and Online Censorship in Guatemala

The headlines in Guatemala's top newspaper, as well as on internationally popular site Boing Boing reported that a Twitter user was arrested by Guatemalan authorities, facing charges of “intent to incite financial panic." The last couple of weeks have been complicated for Guatemalans. Many human rights activists have received death threats via SMS; a YouTube video blamed high rank authorities for the murder of a prestigious lawyer, protests requesting the President to quit were live-streamed; and now a blogger and user of Twitter has been arrested on nonexistent charges.

Financial Panic as a Crime?

After some news of instability in the Guatemalan financial system spread via email last year, two commissions of Congress proposed and approved a law punishing the creation, distribution, or reproduction by any media or system of any information that might harm the financial system. On November 20, 2008, Decree 64-2008 introduced a new crime in the Guatemalan Criminal Code: “Financial Panic."

While the original purpose of the law was to be an instrument to protect financial institutions from “rumors” that might harm the stability and good reputation of the financial institutions, this time it was used as a tool of censorship by the office of the prosecutor, with intent to control the distribution of online content against the interest of the Government and its private-public bank.

In accordance with the Law, the actions of the alleged criminal must be effective, resulting into massive withdrawals and cancellations of bank accounts in any financial institution. Intent is therefore not prosecutable, as intent is not a crime. Furthermore, to be prosecuted one must have a motive.

Why was Jeanfer Arrested?

The accused blogger and Twitter user sent a “tweet” message to his 250 followers, only some of whom were Guatemalan. Guatemala, which has a population of approximately 13 million, has only about a 10% Internet penetration rate. Most of the clients of Banrural are either public officers or people living in rural, isolated areas. Too few rural Guatemalans can read, and too little Internet content is written in indigenous languages; therefore, many of the bank's users could not possibly have been effected by Jeanfer's tweet.

Even more suspicious was the quick and effective arrest in the land of impunity. In recent years the government has flaunted international criminal law, committed extra-judicial executions, and forced evictions. The judiciary, a branch of government that in other countries might serve as a check on violence and corruption, only exacerbates these problems in Guatemala. Plagued with inefficiency, capacity shortages, and constant threats against judges, the courts perpetuate the impunity system, where only 90% of the murders are prosecuted.

But in this case, the suspect was arrested as soon as authorities could; perhaps they thought it was a good idea to produce a “chilling effect” among the social networks in Guatemala. It wasn´t. Now the community is active both in local and global levels to fight for an open Internet and free flow of ideas using any media and enforcing their rights guaranteed by the Inter-American Convention of Human Rights.

The blogger has been fined approximately USD 5,000 and has been placed under house arrest.