Anastasia Mejia Vows to Keep Reporting after Guatemala Arrest
By Danae Vílchez* / CPJ Central America Correspondent
HAVANA TIMES – On August 24, 2020, Anastasia Mejía prepared herself for yet another day of reporting in Joyabaj in central Guatemala. At 49 years old, she had spent the previous 11 years covering the city’s Indigenous Maya K’iche’ community, to which she belongs. Her subject that day was a protest of mostly Maya K’iche’ merchants who wanted the mayor, Florencio Carrascoza, to reinstate a permit to sell their wares after he revoked it due to COVID-19, Mejía told CPJ via video call. One of the few journalists in the town who covers government critically, she knew the protest was important. But she had no idea that it would land her in jail.
Outside the town hall, Mejía began recording a Facebook Live video on the page of Xolabaj TV, the Indigenous and women-focused media outlet she founded in 2013. The protesters were clearly desperate. Without an income, many had started to go hungry. Yelling insults at the mayor, they entered the town hall and ransacked offices, burning paper and furniture. Mejía narrated what she witnessed on the video: “The flames continue, and the protesters continue looting the municipality. The mayor did not want to listen to the merchants.”
The only journalist on the scene, she said she documented as much as she could even after she fell to the ground amid the tumult. “It was chaos all over. People were knocking on the town hall doors and burning everything. The protest turned into something terrible, but I had to record it. It’s my job,” she told CPJ.
Almost a month later, she learned that her work that day came with a price. On September 22, 2020, the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC) arrested both Mejía and Petrona Siy, a local Indigenous leader and the head of the merchants’ association, without a warrant. The Guatemalan prosecutor’s office accused Mejía of participating in the protest and charged her with sedition, aggravated attack, arson, and aggravated robbery, as CPJ documented at the time.
Mejía was imprisoned without trial for 37 days in a penitentiary center in Quetzaltenango, about 75 miles from Joyabaj. According to her lawyer, Ana López, who spoke with CPJ via phone, her detention violated Guatemalan law, which mandates a hearing within 48 hours of an arrest. On October 29, the journalist was released on “substitutive measures,” similar to parole. According to López, the criminal charges have now been reduced to arson and sedition, which carry prison terms of four to 12 years, and up to two years, respectively.
Reached by CPJ via email, the prosecutor’s office directed CPJ to contact the state judiciary. CPJ emailed questions to the judiciary but did not receive a response.
Today, five months after her release, Mejía’s journalistic work has been severely limited.
According to López, she cannot leave the Quiché department, which encompasses Joyabaj, by court order, and must report to the prosecutor’s office every 15 days until the end of her trial, which has been delayed multiple times. The first judge assigned to the case, Susy Peréz, withdrew from the trial in February after defense lawyers accused of her discrimination against Indigenous people, López said. As of April 2021, a new judge has not been assigned to the case.
López told CPJ that Mejía’s court order also prevents her from approaching Carrascoza, the mayor and a longtime subject of her reporting, or any member of city council. But that hasn’t stopped the mayor from taking extra steps to further curtail Mejía’s reporting. She told CPJ that he has unofficially banned her from most public activities by pressuring people not to admit her, lest they lose municipal funding or permission to gather.
“The mayor has asked the community to prohibit my presence. I have not been able to do reporting in some parts of town,” Mejía said.
CPJ called Joyabaj City Hall twice, but on both occasions a secretary told CPJ the mayor was unavailable for an interview. CPJ also emailed the municipality a detailed list of questions for Carrascoza. Public information officer Sheyla Fabiola García Santos said via email that the municipality was processing the request but CPJ did not receive a response.
Along with her work as a journalist, Mejía is a community leader, an Ajq’ij-Mayan spiritual guide — and in her spare time, she makes jewelry. For more than 20 years, she has been a vital voice in Joyabaj, denouncing corruption, lack of transparency in the municipal government, and now providing a platform for indigenous women.
Mejía started in journalism as a radio host in 2009 at a community station, where she broadcasted in both Maya K’iche’ and Spanish, sharing information about politics and culture. “Back then, I had to pay to have the program, but some friends helped me. I then started to do live transmissions on seed blessings, a Mayan ancestral rite, and that was how I gained the love and trust of a lot of people,” Mejía told CPJ.
Early on, Mejía’s reporting caught the attention of some local politicians, who did not like her programming on human rights and political participation, the journalist said. The mayor was one of her early detractors. Mejia recalls one of her colleagues at the station telling her that Carrascoza, then a city councilor, had instructed him to “get that woman out,” saying he didn’t like how Mejia urged listeners to stand up for themselves in the face of alleged government abuse.
Due to Carrascoza’s pressure, Mejía said she changed stations several times over the course of five years. She said he even threatened to remove the stations’ antennas planted in the mountains around Joyabaj to broaden transmission capacity. “I was tired of that,” Mejía said, and in 2012 she decided to found her own radio station, Xolabaj, which means “a place between stones” in K’iche’. The station is available on the airwaves and on the internet.
In 2017, she added Xolabaj TV, which airs videos and live recordings on the outlet’s Facebook and YouTube accounts. Today, all but one of Xolabaj’s seven workers are women. Its broadcasts are transmitted in Spanish and K’iche’ — the two most widely spoken languages in Joyabaj, where more than 90 percent of the population is Maya K’iche’. In addition to women’s and Indigenous issues, the station covers public corruption.
“People listen to us even from the United States,” Mejía told CPJ.
In 2015, Mejía’s reporting on the local government’s alleged misuse of public funds drew the attention of local political group Partido Patriota, which invited her to run for Joyabaj city council. Seeing the position as an opportunity to monitor the mayor’s activities closely, she accepted the nomination and won. She also continued to report as a journalist.
While on city council, Mejía said the mayor repeatedly denigrated her as an Indigenous woman and yelled at other municipal employees, a pattern that prompted her to twice request the judiciary to investigate the mayor, once for alleged mistreatment of women and once for abuse of authority. According to news reports, the judiciary is still processing the requests, as well as at least four others, including one of alleged fraud, against the mayor. Because elected officials in Guatemala have legal immunity, the judiciary must find evidence of a crime in order to trigger a separate legal process to strip the official of immunity and allow a lawsuit to go forward.
Carrascoza told the Salvadoran news outlet El Faro that the allegations amount to a plot against him by human rights advocates and journalists. He said of Mejía, “She comes to defame me.”
In 2020, Mejía left her position as a councilwoman after finishing her five-year term and again devoted herself entirely to journalism. “I am convinced that my duty is to serve the people, that I must not fail the people, that I have to tell people the truth,” Mejía said.
According to Nelton Rivera, a journalist and researcher for the independent Guatemalan news outlet Prensa Comunitaria, Mejía’s story fits a pattern of Indigenous journalists facing backlash for reporting on local corruption that impacts their communities. CPJ has documented how this trend further undermines press freedom in Guatemala, where journalists of all backgrounds endure legal harassment, orchestrated online attacks, and the threat of violence.
“We can see repeating patterns; they are Indigenous journalists that local power groups want to censor when they document their abuses,” Rivera told CPJ. Such cases include that of Prensa Comunitaria journalists Carlos Ernesto Choc and Jerson Xitumul Morales, who faced charges for covering a 2017 protest against a mining company in El Estor, Izabal department, that turned deadly, as CPJ documented. Xitumul was held in pre-trial detention for more than five weeks before he was released to house arrest while Choc went into hiding to avoid being taken into custody.
Julian Ventura, a Maya K’iche’ freelance journalist and activist, told CPJ via phone that the Guatemalan state does not consider Indigenous journalists “real” journalists. He said the case against Mejía has instilled fear among Indigenous journalists.
“The objective is to silence the voice of [Indigenous] people. They do not want information on corruption and human rights abuses to emerge, they want to generate fear among the communities.”
But Mejía has vowed not to let that happen. “They are not going to silence me,” she told CPJ. “We are the voice, the feeling, and the hope of the people.”
*Danae Vílchez is a Nicaraguan multimedia journalist who is studying for an Erasmus Mundus MA in Journalism, Media, and Globalization. She previously worked at the Nicaraguan independent news outlet Confidencial. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Newsweek, New Internationalist, and Aj+, among others.