Thursday, May 28, 2009

Guatemala: Conversation With @Jeanfer, Twitterer Facing Up to 10 Years In Prison for One Tweet.

posted by Xeni Jardin
(Version en Español aquí)

GUATEMALA CITY: Earlier this month, a Twitter user in Guatemala was arrested, jailed, and fined the equivalent of a year's salary for having posted a 96-character thought to Twitter. The tweet related to an ongoing political crisis in Guatemala sparked by allegations that president Álvaro Colom ordered the assassination of an attorney, and claims made by this attorney that government officials engaged in illegal, corrupt transactions through the country's largest bank.

Jean Ramses Anleu Fernandez, or @jeanfer as he's known on Twitter (at left), has since been released from jail. He is under house arrest while the Guatemalan government pursues charges against him. Jean is an unlikely public figure: a shy, soft-spoken I.T. guy who studies systems engineering and loves books. He has since become something of a popular hero online, and Twitter itself has become a force in the country's current upheaval.

Guatemala's Supervisor of Banks, Édgar Barquín, wants Jean to face charges of up to 10 years in jail for "inciting financial panic" through the tweet in question. Barquín this week also proposed new restrictions on internet use in Guatemala -- for instance, that people who use internet cafés be required to present national IDs ("cedulas") before logging on.

I interviewed @jeanfer this week, here in Guatemala. Among the details he shared: Guatemala's Ministry of Banks created a Twitter account to "follow" him, in the course of interrograting him at his home. And while he was in jail, he dreamed of Kafka, and wished he could turn himself into a cockroach, to escape. Jean's final words in the interview:

The point is that this case represents something we must not lose. Without freedom of opinions and speech, there is no democracy. I hope this case sets a precedent about freedom of thought.

I've left most of the interview intact, so it's long (+2000 words). Continued in entirety after the jump. Special thanks to @thevenemousone for assistance with translation.

@XENIJARDIN: How were you using Twitter, and who were you mostly communicating with on Twitter when all of this happened?

I used to chat among a circle of Guatemalan friends in a book club I belong to, and others from the same social group who were interested in the web, and information technology.

: Nearly all of your blog posts were about books, too. I remember thinking when i first saw your personal blog that you were clearly a person who loves reading books.

With all my heart. I have a beautiful little library in my home. In my house, my study, my bathroom, even in my phone -- every wall is covered in bookshelves. I read lots of different kinds -- but historic novels are my favorite. I read biographies, poetry, history, theology...

: You were one of many people in Guatemala who were talking about the political crisis on Twitter in that first week after the Rosenberg video was released.

Yes, one of many.

And you posted this one fleeting thought about the crisis, and the bank. 96 characters. What happened?

What happened was that these past days in Guatemala have been extremely turbulent. We have been trying to figure out what is going on, because we are worried about our country. I love Guatemala. So, we were exchanging the information we knew among our groups, with people we knew and were close to. We were all sharing fleeting thoughts as things were happening.

@JEANFER: That day in particular, May 12th, started with news of the MP (Public Ministry, government body charged with investigations) arriving at the bank (background here and here). My first tweet related to this matter is made at noon, after that happened. The only people following me were a small group of friends who understand that my tweet was not an incitation. I even used quotation marks, to specify that this was overheard dialogue.

If you notice, my tweet has three parts. "Primera acción real" (First real action) is the title I use to designate what is happening around the whole #escandalogt issue. This was the first real action that had taken place after Rosenberg's video surfaced. Second, "sacar el pisto de banrural" (withdraw the money from Banrural) - is the quotation of what someone else is saying. And lastly, what I thought that first action meant to do: "quebrar al banco de los corruptos" (bankrupt the bank of the corrupt). Notice that I didn't mean that the bank or their officials are or were corrupt, but that maybe other people were infiltrating within the bank... I don't know. This was the opinion of many people in Guatemala.

[The officials who arrested me] took this information and claimed firstly, that I've said it at a public hearing; secondly, that this information is at anyone's reach; and lastly, that it is meant to be an incitation.

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