Attacks on the Press 2001: Mexico

President Vicente Fox’s historic election in 2000 marked the end of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) domination of the country and its media. But the honeymoon between the president and the media ended in 2001 with increasingly critical coverage that reflected the public’s frustration with the slow pace of reforms under the new government.

From the unresolved Chiapas conflict and rising unemployment to the lack of progress in addressing past human rights abuses, the media criticized the president for not delivering on his campaign promises. In November, Fox used his weekly radio program “Fox en vivo, Fox contigo” (Fox live, Fox with you) to complain about the criticism against his administration: “There is a lot of libel, a lot of deceit, a lot of lies recently in the media.”

The Mexican government for the first time acknowledged responsibility for a rash of human rights abuses that took place during the counterinsurgency that the PRI-led government waged against leftist activists and guerrillas in Guerrero State during the 1970s. A November report issued by the National Human Rights Commission held the Mexican government accountable for detaining and torturing at least 275 men and women, but the commission did not disclose the names of some 74 officials who were implicated. While President Fox appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the disappearances, he did not establish a truth commission to probe state-sponsored repression, and little progress was made.

Emboldened by the government’s reluctance to find and prosecute human rights violators, opponents of the investigations launched violent attacks against activists and journalists. On October 19, prominent human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa was murdered in her Mexico City office. Ochoa, a past victim of kidnapping and threats, had escaped an assassination attempt in 1999. A note found next to her threatened her colleagues as well.

On October 27, anonymous death threats were issued against human rights activists Miguel Sarre, Fernando Ruiz, Juan Antonio Vega, Sergio Aguayo, and Edgar Cortez. And on November 6, Germán Dehesa, a writer and columnist with the daily Reforma, received anonymous death threats via e-mail after he wrote a piece denouncing the harassment of human rights activists.

On December 4, robbers broke into the offices of the monthly magazine Forum, taking computer equipment worth about 65,000 Mexican pesos (US$7,000), along with CD-ROMs and zip discs containing archive materials. Forum is best known for publishing articles by jailed Gen. José Francisco Gallardo Rodríguez, who was arrested in 1993 after writing an article for Forum calling for the armed forces to establish an independent, civilian ombudsman to monitor human rights abuses involving the military. While Forum director Eduardo Ibarra refrained from calling the robbery politically motivated, some journalists believed the break-in was connected to other attacks on human rights advocates. The investigation into the robbery had made no progress by year’s end.

Mexican law does not currently guarantee public access to official information, but Congress is scheduled to consider two competing bills on the subject in the spring of 2002. One, drafted and supported by a coalition of journalists, academics, and nongovernmental organizations, would provide comprehensive measures that include sanctions for public officials who hide or destroy information. Critics charge that the other bill, sponsored by the government, offers unacceptably limited access and does not punish officials for failing to comply with the regulations.

The access to information bills have sparked a contentious debate. Ernesto Villanueva, an academic and frequent collaborator with the Mexico City weekly Proceso, told CPJ that he received threats after he criticized the government-sponsored version of the law.

The U.S.-Mexico border remained a dangerous place for journalists, who are often targeted by narco-traffickers and corrupt security personnel in the region. On February 19, José Luis Ortega Mata, the editor of the weekly Semanario de Ojinaga, in Chihuahua State, was shot to death. Friends and relatives linked the murder to his stories on drug trafficking in the region, including drug traffickers’ ties to local politicians.

In August, a judge acquitted the two suspects in the 1998 murder of Philip True, a San Antonio Express-News (Texas) journalist who was killed while working on a story about the Huichols, an indigenous population that lives in a mountainous area stretching across Jalisco, Nayarit, and Durango states. The judge’s ruling was under appeal at year’s end. However, CPJ protested irregularities in the prosecution and the investigation that cast doubt on the validity of the proceedings.

February 19

José Luis Ortega Mata, Semanario de Ojinaga

Ortega Mata, 37, was the editor of the weekly Semanario de Ojinaga, based in Ojinaga, Chihuahua State. He was shot twice in the head at close range with a .22-caliber firearm on the evening of February 19, according to local press reports.

Friends and relatives of the journalist linked his murder to a front-page story in the February 15 issue of Semanario de Ojinaga reporting that the federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) was investigating drug trafficking activities in the town of Aldama, near the state capital, Chihuahua. Semanario de Ojinaga also claimed that local traffickers were moving drugs from safe houses in Aldama through Ojinaga to the United States.

It has also been reported that the paper was about to publish a story alleging that drug traffickers were funding the electoral campaigns of local politicians, and that Ortega Mata had received threats in connection with the story. In the past, the weekly has run articles criticizing local politicians and police.

On April 29, a businessman named Jesús Manuel Herrera was arrested by state police and charged with Ortega Mata’s murder based on eyewitness testimony. However, jail records show that the alleged eyewitness who identified Herrera as the assailant was in jail at the time of Ortega Mata’s death. In addition, the Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office was unable to provide a motive and offered no other evidence. Despite these revelations, Herrera remained imprisoned pending further investigations.

On July 13, after several hearings and more than 70 days in prison, an appeals court judge ruled that the evidence against Herrera was insufficient, and he was released.

April 16

Carolina Pavón, REFORMA
Alejandro Junco de la Vega, REFORMA

Former Mexico City mayor Rosario Robles Berlanga brought criminal defamation charges against Pavón, a reporter with the Mexico City-based daily REFORMA, and Junco de la Vega, president and publisher of the paper. The charges stem from an April 12 cover story in which Pavón reported on official allegations that almost 10 percent of the mayor’s administration’s 2000 budget had gone missing.

The allegations appeared in a report from the Comptroller General’s Office of Mexico City, which found that 6 billion Mexican pesos (US$650 million) were unaccounted for in last year’s budget.

Robles, who was mayor of Mexico City until December 2000, did not dispute the allegations, but contended that she had no knowledge of the reported malfeasance and therefore could not be held responsible.

On April 16, Robles filed a criminal defamation complaint against Pavón and Junco de la Vega before federal district attorney general Bernardo Bátiz.

REFORMA‘s manager of legal affairs, Eugenio Herrera Terrazas, told CPJ that the suit was based on Article 350 of the Federal District’s Penal Code. If convicted, Pavón and Junco de la Vega could be jailed for up to two years.

In a letter protesting the charges that was sent to President Vicente Fox Quesada on May 22, CPJ argued that it was outrageous that Robles should make a criminal matter of her objections to a report on a matter of obvious public interest.

October 23

Ernesto Villanueva, Proceso

Villanueva, a university professor and a frequent contributor to the Mexico City weekly Proceso, was harassed and threatened by unidentified individuals, apparently in reprisal for criticizing a government-sponsored access to information bill.

At around 10:40 p.m., a car with its high-beam lights on followed Villanueva as he drove home. Upon his arrival, the professor received an anonymous phone call from an individual who said, “Doctor, we want you to stop talking crap about the [access to information] law. Mexico City is a very dangerous city and the family goes first. Take that into account.” The caller hung up when Villanueva asked who was on the phone.

Villanueva, a professor at Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana’s Communications Department, is also a member of the Oaxaca Group, a coalition of journalists, academics, and nongovernmental organizations that in late 2001 proposed a draft bill on access to public information.

In his frequent articles for Proceso, Villanueva had harshly criticized a competing bill sponsored by President Vicente Fox Quesada’s administration. Opposition deputies in the Congress introduced the Oaxaca Group version of the bill for debate in early December 2001. It remained under consideration at year’s end.

The threats against Villanueva came four days after the murder of human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa and threats against human rights activists at the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, where Ochoa used to work.

In a November 5 Proceso article, Villanueva wrote that he had decided against filing a complaint about the incident because he did not want to distract attention from the debate on the bill.