IN A WATERSHED YEAR FOR MEXICAN DEMOCRACY, the dissolution of ties between much of the media and the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) helped foster a more professional and competitive press in 2000.
The election of National Action Party (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox to the presidency on July 2 ended the PRI’s 71-year hold on power, a period during which most media unabashedly supported the regime. In an encouraging sign, the new government quickly pledged that it would promote transparency of information and respect freedom of expression and of the press. In addition, the Fox administration promised that the Center for Information and National Security, the government intelligence agency, would no longer spy on journalists. (Under the PRI, the government routinely spied on journalists while reacting with hostility to the notion that its activities should be public.)
Though many media organizations, particularly TV and radio broadcasters, were biased in favor of the PRI, the Mexican press played an important role in the 2000 presidential elections. The press greatly contributed to the transparency of the electoral process by monitoring possible fraud and irregularities on election day, as well as by announcing the results of exit polls. Journalists noted, however, that as the race tightened between Fox and PRI candidate Francisco Labastida, Fox’s press coverage turned negative. On June 19, the president of the Federal Electoral Institute, José Woldenberg, announced that media coverage of presidential candidates was no longer balanced, a reference to the media’s increasing bias toward the ruling party candidate.
Mexico has an active press freedom community, represented by organizations such as the Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos (AMDH), the Centro Nacional de Comunicación Social (CENCOS), the Sociedad de Periodistas, and the Fundación Manuel Buendía. The First Mexican Congress on the Right to Information, held in November, concluded that in order to meet the challenges of a more fluid political environment, the country’s journalists need a code of ethics devised by journalists, media owners, and civil society. While support for the Federal Law on Social Communication (a bill defeated in 1998 that, according to its proponents, is intended to assure free expression and the right to information), is not widespread, there is a consensus that the obsolete Print Law of 1917 must be replaced with new press legislation.
During most of the PRI’s rule, the press skewed its coverage in exchange for subsidies, tax incentives, and government advertising. Today, much of the Mexican media’s long free ride appears to be coming to an end, with some interesting consequences for the country’s historically pro-PRI media. The television network Televisa, which for decades tied its fortunes to the PRI and until the early 1990s held a monopoly on private TV broadcasting, has tried over the last few years to reinvent itself as a fair and non-partisan network, for example.
On December 4, the Federal Antitrust Commission barred a planned merger of the radio operations of Televisa and Grupo Acir, contending that it would squeeze smaller competitors out of the advertising market and give Televisa unacceptable dominance in the radio industry. Many saw this as an unambiguous sign of the new political reality.
In another example of the shifting media environment, the Mexico City daily EXCELSIOR nearly folded in late October. While most Mexican publications grew more independent in the 1990s, EXCELSIOR had maintained its distinctly pro-government stance. Spurred by low credibility and an outdated design, EXCELSIOR steadily lost its readership. When management declared in October that the paper was nearly bankrupt and announced it was up for sale, rebellious journalists and employees, who run EXCELSIOR as a cooperative, ousted its top executives and vowed to adopt an independent stance. The paper remains afloat on short-term loans, but many doubt that it can succeed in the long run. Now that the PRI has lost power, other heavily subsidized newspapers are expected to collapse as well.
Narco-traffickers and corrupt security personnel continued to threaten journalists last year, particularly along the U.S.-Mexican border. On April 9, U.S. Border Patrol agents recovered the body of reporter and photographer Pablo Pineda in Los Indios, just outside Harlingen, Texas. Pineda handled the police beat for the newspaper La Opinión, based in the border city of Matamoros, and had also covered regional drug trafficking.
Mexican journalists often cite the lack of prompt and thorough investigations by the authorities as one of the main factors contributing to attacks against the press. On April 29, José Ramírez Puente, a reporter with the private station Radio Net in the border town of Ciudad Juárez, was found dead in his car. According to a local source, two hypotheses were being investigated: that Ramírez was killed for his coverage of prostitution, or because of something he discovered working as a government informant. CPJ continues to investigate whether either journalist was targeted because of his work.
In April, the Mexican government asked the U.S. to extradite suspected drug trafficker Gabriel González Gutiérrez, who along with his brother Jaime has been charged with ordering the July 1997 murder of journalist Benjamín Flores González, the editor and publisher of the daily La Prensa in the border town of San Luis Río Colorado. Flores González had covered the drug trade aggressively, and the González Gutiérrez brothers were one of his favorite subjects. The gunman who shot him is now in prison, but Gabriel González Gutiérrez remained at large until February 24, when he and three other brothers were arrested on drug-trafficking charges near Yuma, Arizona. Although the extradition process could drag on for months, local journalists hoped the arrests might revive the stalled Flores González murder investigation. Jaime González Gutiérrez remained at large.
The case of Philip True, a San Antonio Express-News journalist who was killed in 1998 while working on a story about the Huichols, an indigenous population that lives in a mountainous area stretching across Jalisco, Nayarit, and Durango states, remained unsolved. Two Huichol Indians were in jail accused of True’s murder, but they had not yet been tried at year’s end.
Pablo Pineda, La Opinión
KILLED (MOTIVE UNCONFIRMED)
At approximately 2:45 a.m., U.S. Border Patrol agents found the body of Pineda, a reporter and photographer with the Mexican newspaper La Opinión, in Los Indios, just outside Harlingen, Texas.
The agents had watched two people cross the Rio Grande carrying a bundle wrapped in a white sheet, which they deposited on the U.S. bank of the river. When no one came to retrieve the bundle, the officers investigated and found Pineda’s body. According to news reports, the journalist had been shot in the back of the head with a 9mm pistol.
One of Pineda’s colleagues told CPJ that the 38-year-old journalist covered the police beat and had also written on drug trafficking in the region. In December 1999, Pineda survived an assassination attempt near his home. Pineda filed a complaint with the local police, but the gunman was never caught. Pineda had worked for La Opinión, published in the border city of Matamoros, for eight months prior to his death.
CPJ circulated an alert about Pineda’s murder on April 13. Subsequently, local press reports hinted that the journalist had been involved in the local drug trade, although one CPJ source suggested that drug traffickers might have spread this rumor to discredit Pineda. The murder investigation remained stalled at year’s end.
José Ramírez Puente, Radio Net
KILLED (MOTIVE UNCONFIRMED)
Ramírez, the host of a popular news program in the town of Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, was found stabbed to death in his car.
A 29-year-old reporter with the private station Radio Net, Ramírez had been stabbed more than 30 times, according to CPJ sources and local press accounts. The murder was believed to have taken place earlier on the night Ramírez’s body was discovered.
Police later announced that they had found eight bags of marijuana in the trunk of Ramírez’s car. The journalist’s colleagues and Ciudad Juárez mayor Gustavo Elizondo publicly vouched for Ramírez’s integrity, however, and said there was no indication that he had been involved in illicit activity. Local journalists claimed the drugs had been planted, perhaps by the killer or killers, to suggest that Ramírez was involved in the drug trade.
Ramírez began his career with the radio stations 860 and FM Globo. He then worked as a print reporter with the Ciudad Juárez daily El Norte before taking a job with Radio Net. His daily news show, “Juárez Hoy,” had been on the air for about a month when he died. Broadcast from Monday to Friday, the hour-long program featured breaking news and interviews with politicians, business leaders, and others.
While the case was referred to the Federal Attorney’s Office, which handles all drug-related offenses, there was also speculation that Ramírez was killed for his coverage of prostitution or other illicit activity. And there was some reason to suspect that he was not killed for his journalism, since credible local sources suggested that he also worked as a government informant.
CPJ circulated a news alert about the murder on May 1. At year’s end, a government spokesman in Ciudad Juárez declined to release any information about the investigation, but expressed confidence that the case would be solved.
Melitón García, El Norte
García, a reporter with the Monterrey-based daily El Norte, in the northern state of Nuevo León, was prosecuted under Mexico’s federal electoral laws for fraudulently obtaining a voter credential.
The charges followed a two-part series in El Norte, published on May 16 and 17, in which the journalist reported on his own efforts to obtain a voting credential using a false birth certificate.
Under Article 247 of the Mexican Penal Code it is illegal to obtain a false voter credential. Authorities from the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), who filed a complaint with Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (PGR), claimed that García was being prosecuted for his illegal actions, not for his journalism. A conviction in García’s case could lead to up to six years’ imprisonment.
In a May 24 letter to Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuéllar, CPJ called for the dismissal of all charges against García. CPJ also mentioned the case in a June 30 letter to President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León.
At year’s end, the case was stalled. García told CPJ that he had testified in late May before two special prosecutors for electoral offenses, and that the case was still under investigation. García added that the Federal Public Ministry, the agency charged with criminal investigations, could take the matter to a judge, who would decide either to issue an arrest warrant or close the case.
The journalist also told CPJ that the Nuevo León Attorney General’s Office was investigating him for obtaining a birth certificate using false information.
Lilly Téllez, TV Azteca
Unidentified gunmen attacked Téllez, news host at Mexico’s second-largest TV network, in Mexico City.
Téllez, host of the program “Hechos del Siete” (“Channel Seven News”) program on TV Azteca in Mexico City, was attacked at around 10 p.m., minutes after she wrapped up her broadcast and left the office in a chauffeur-driven car, followed by two bodyguards in another car.
When the two vehicles stopped at the Periférico Sur and Boulevard de la Luz intersection, they were showered with bullets fired from the sidewalk by at least three gunmen.
Téllez escaped uninjured, but her two bodyguards, who tried to repel the aggressors, both sustained bullet wounds, as did her chauffeur. All three men were hospitalized in stable condition, and later recovered.
TV Azteca hired the two bodyguards after Téllez claimed to have been threatened by drug traffickers because of her reporting. The motive for the attack remained unclear, however. On June 23, CPJ circulated an alert about the case.
Six men in two cars drove by the offices of the Cancún daily Por Esto! and fired at least four pistol shots. The attack was apparently in retaliation for articles on growing drug-trafficking activities in the city. No one was injured in the attack. The attackers, who turned out to be waiters from a local bar called Yuppies Sport Café, were later arrested at the municipal prison, where they had stopped to visit a co-worker held on drug charges.
In a series of articles published in August, Por Esto! had reported on the drug trade in Cancún’s hotel zone, where it alleged that waiters and taxi drivers, with the complicity of local authorities, sold cocaine and ecstasy pills to tourists and to the local population.
When they arrested the waiters, police confiscated a bag containing a white powder, presumably cocaine, and the weapon used in the attack. The attackers were later released on probation.
Following the attack, Por Esto! filed a complaint with the State Attorney General’s Office (PGJE), which was subsequently forwarded to federal authorities.
Jesús Antonio Pinedo Cornejo, Semanario
Luis Villagrana, Semanario
Pinedo Cornejo, editor of the Ciudad Juárez weekly Semanario, and Villagrana, a reporter for the paper, were arrested on charges of criminal defamation filed by former police commissioner Javier Benavides González.
Benavides pressed charges over a February 28 article by Villagrana, entitled “History of Police Officers and Drug Traffickers.” The piece linked Benavides with the drug trade.
Although both journalists were freed on bail, they faced two years in prison if convicted. On September 18, meanwhile, Benavides had resigned from his post as police commissioner of Ciudad Juárez, and was expected to join the security team of president-elect Vicente Fox Quesada.
At around 7 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$1590), set by Judge María Catalina Ruiz Pacheco. Villagrana, who also faced arrest, appeared voluntarily before the judge, and also posted bail of 15,000 pesos.
Pinedo Cornejo told local reporters that the case had been moving with “strange speed,” given that local police normally take much longer to execute arrest warrants.
In a September 29 letter to Chihuahua attorney general Arturo González Rascón, CPJ raised doubts about the fairness of the criminal proceedings against Pinedo Cornejo and Villagrana, and argued that all such cases should be resolved in civil courts. On October 2, Benavides dropped the suit.