Ciudad Juárez journalists prosecuted for defaming former police chief

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New York, October 2, 2000 — CPJ has written to the attorney general of Chihuahua State to inquire about the prosecution of journalists Jesús Antonio Pinedo Cornejo and Luis Villagrana on criminal-defamation charges.

Pinedo Cornejo edits the weekly Semanario, based in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua State. Villagrana is a reporter for the paper. Former Ciudad Juárez police commissioner Javier Benavides González filed the defamation charges over an article by Villagrana that ran in Semanario on February 28 of this year. Titled “History of police officers and drug traffickers,” the article linked Benavides with the drug trade.

At around seven p.m. on September 19, Judicial State Police officers arrested Pinedo Cornejo on a warrant issued hours earlier by the Fourth Criminal Court. He was released the next day after posting bail of 15,000 pesos (US$1,590), set by Judge María Catalina Ruiz Pacheco. Villagrana appeared voluntarily before the judge, and also posted bail of 15,000 pesos.

Judge Ruiz Pacheco officially opened proceedings against the journalists on September 26. Although both men are currently free on bail, they face two years in prison if convicted of the charges. Benavides, meanwhile, resigned from his post as police commissioner of Ciudad Juárez on September 18; he is expected to join the security team of President-elect Vicente Fox Quesada.

Pinedo Cornejo told local reporters that the case has been moving with “strange speed,” given that local police normally take much longer to execute arrest warrants. In e-mail correspondence with CPJ, he also claimed that the trial had been marred by several due-process violations. For example, the journalists were not officially informed about Benavides’ lawsuit against them. Instead, they only learned about the case when it was reported in local newspapers, he said.

In a September 29 letter to Arturo González Rascón, attorney general of Chihuahua, CPJ urgently requested clarification concerning these alleged violations of due process.

“While CPJ believes,” the letter read, “that journalists should be responsible for what they write, we feel that any dispute that might arise from an article should be resolved in a civil forum, particularly in the case of government officials who are subject to scrutiny and criticism from the citizens they serve. Freedom of expression is guaranteed to all Mexicans under Article 6 of the Constitution. Our view is that statutes that criminalize speech-related offenses violate this basic right.”