Guatemala: Assassinated lawyer, arrested Twitterer-Ethan Zuckerman

May 19, 2009

The assassinated lawyer, the arrested Twitterer – corruption, whistleblowing and protest in Guatemala

Ethan Zuckerman: May 14, 2009

http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/05/14/the-assasinated-lawyer-the-arrested-twitterer-corruption-whistleblowing-and-protest-in-guatemala/

SI USTED ESTA LEYENDO ESTE MENSAGE ES QUE YO RODRIGO ROSENBERG MARZANO FUI ASESINADO por el Secretario Privado de La Presidencia GUSTAVO ALEJOS Y SU SOCIO GREGORIO VALDEZ, CON LA APROBACION DEL SEÑOR ALVARO COLOM Y DE SANDRA DE COLOM.

That’s the beginning of a three-page letter written and signed by lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg on May 9th. “If you are reading this message, it’s because I, Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano, was assasinated by the private secretary to the President, Gustavo Alejos, and his associate Gregorio Valdez, with the approval of President Alvaro Colom and of (the President’s wife) Sandra De Colom.” (A translation of the full statement is available here.)

The following day, Rosenberg was shot while bicycing in Guatemala City. In the letter – and the accompanying video, above – Rosenberg tells his audience that, if he is killed, it’s because he represented a prominent Lebanese businessman, Khalil Musa, and his daugher Marjorie Musa. The elder Musa had been involved with complex dealings with state-controlled bank, Banrural – he’d been offered a board seat and then later had it withdrawn, and believed his involvement with the bank was being used to assuage concerns that the bank was engaged in corrupt practices, including laundering drug money. Earlier this month, the elder and younger Musa were killed – while the police report that the Musas were killed by workers in one of their factories, Rosenberg believed that they were killed because they threatened to expose government corruption. The Guatemalan government strenuously denies Rosenberg’s posthumous charges.

The release of Rosenberg’s written statement and video have led to street protests as well as a great deal of online organizing. Xeni Jardin – who’s covered this story very closely on BoingBoing – reports that these protests have been streamed live on the internet via Ustream.tv, with the broadcast periodically interrupted by police harrasment. Guatemalans and others following the situation are organizing groups on Facebook and tagging their posts on Twitter with the #escandalogt tag.

In one of her posts, Xeni notes that the young people organizing online to protest Rosenberg’s murder are taking a great deal of personal risk. That was a prescient warning on her part – today, Guatemalan police arrested Jean Ramses Anleu Fernández, who was twittering under the handle @jeanfer.

The tweet that got Anleu into trouble read as follows: “Primera accion real ’sacar el pisto de Banrural’ quebrar al banco de los corruptos. #escandalogt” – which (very roughly) translates as “The first thing to do is to withdraw money from Banrural to break the naks of the corrupt”. While many of Anleu’s tweets may have annoyed the government, authorities argue that this one constituted inciting a financial panic. (Xeni’s translation of the previous link, a story in Prensa Libre, is here.)

Now #freejeanfer and #jeanfer are joining #escandalogt as popular tags in the Guatemalan twittersphere. Needless to say, I’m setting up scripts to track all these tags and will release data here as it comes in. I’m intrigued to see whether we see pro-Colom voices in the tagstream as well as those protesting against the government, as we did with the #pman tag in Moldova.

Anleu’s arrest is a reminder of the very real dangers associated with online protest in repressive nations. Marc Lynch offered his concerns about Egyptian activists protesting on Facebook in a recent talk in New York – he worried that the ease of organizing online protests would motivate people to confront the Mubarak government without understanding the possible consequences. If the Colom government is willing to kill whistleblowers – which they strenuously deny – and arrest people for twittering in protest, it’s reasonable to assume that online activist carries some real risks in Guatelama. But Guatemalans aren’t running away from the medium – in the past couple of hours, dozens of people have reposted the tweet that led to Anleu’s arrest as a sign of solidarity and as a challenge to authorities.

Xeni’s all over this story on BoingBoing. Wikipedia’s got a good overview of Rosenberg’s death and the surrounding circumstances. Prensa Libre in Guatemala City is covering these interrelated stories very closely, for Spanish speakers. We’re late to the story on Global Voices, but I hope we’ll be covering it soon.

I ran a little tool I developed a few weeks back to check the frequency with which phrases and hashtags appear on Twitter. #escandalogt isn’t hugely frequent, registering at 0.052% – compared to #swineflu, for instance, which was running at over 2% at the height of hype/hysteria. What’s interesting is that #escandalogt is about as frequent as several of the tags listed on Twitter’s “Trending Topics”, getting more use than #fixreplies, #GoogleFail and #theoffice, all currently featured on the right sidebar. It’ll be interesting to see whether #escandalogt emerges there… or whether this is a sign that those topics aren’t entirely algorithmically generated and some human curation is involved.

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