Attacks on the Press 2003: Mexico

While the Mexican press was able to report more freely about government corruption, an increase in criminal defamation charges and government pressure on journalists to reveal their sources cast a pall over the media in 2003.

As President Vicente Fox hit the halfway point of his six-year presidency, his chances of transforming the country were slipping away, and with it, the nation’s optimism. On June 12, however, Mexico took a step toward curbing official corruption when the Federal Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information came into effect, opening the government’s closely guarded secrets to public scrutiny.

The law allows any citizen to request information about public officials’ salaries, government contracts, internal reports, and the use of public money. Government organizations must comply within 30 days, and officials who refuse to provide information can lose their jobs or face fines and criminal charges. If officials deny an information request, the legislation grants the public the right to appeal to the Federal Institute of Access to Public Information, an agency responsible for dealing with problems surrounding such requests. If that appeal is lost, citizens can take the case to court.

But according to the law, each federal branch can withhold requested information for up to 12 years for reasons of national, trade, industrial, or financial security. The law also restricts public access to records pertaining to ongoing judicial proceedings and criminal investigations.

Though the law is perceived as an important step in Mexico’s path to a more open democracy, local journalists warned that the process of shedding light on government activities will be a long one. In August, during a visit to Mexico, Eduardo Bertoni, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression, noted that laws on access to public information had not been enacted in various states, even though the bills had been introduced in the local legislatures.

A few short detentions in 2003 highlighted the pressure that Mexican journalists continue to face from the application of criminal defamation laws. Isabel Arvide, a Mexico Citybased journalist and author who has written many exposés about drug traffickers, corruption, and violence, as well as the book Muerte en Juárez (Death in Juarez), was detained on March 4 in Chihuahua City. Chihuahua State Attorney General Jesús Solís Silva charged her with criminal defamation, and Arvide spent about 24 hours in jail at Chihuahua’s Social Rehabilitation Center before being released March 5 on bail. Arvide, whose trial was ongoing at press time, is required to appear every two weeks in Chihuahua City before Judge Octavio Rodríguez Gaytán, of the Second Penal Court, in connection with another criminal defamation complaint filed against her in 2002. (That case was also ongoing at year’s end.)

Attorney General Solís’ charges stemmed from a June 2, 2001, article by Arvide that appeared on the journalist’s Web site and in the Mexico City daily Milenio. The piece alleged that a number of state government officials, including Solís and newspaper publisher Osvaldo Rodríguez Borunda, had organized a new drug cartel in Chihuahua.

On August 26, Francisco Barradas, director of the biweekly magazine Bi, was detained for five hours at Cieneguillas Prison in Zacatecas State. He was charged with libeling local city council trustee Rafael Medina Briones before being released on bail. The charges stemmed from an article that Barradas published in July 2002 when he was editor of the daily Imagen. In the article, the journalist alleged that Medina Briones had been seen on the roof of a house stealing water from a neighbor’s tank. Medina Briones said the information was false. Barradas was required to register every eight days in Zacatecas City before Judge Miguel Luis Ruiz Roble of the Fourth Criminal Court. On November 25, a superior court dismissed the charges against the journalist.

Government officials pressured several journalists to reveal their sources in 2003. In one prominent case, on September 4, federal police agents went to the offices of the Mexico City daily La Jornada to speak with reporter Gustavo Carrillo García about his sources for a June 19 article about drug trafficking. On September 5, the Attorney General’s Office ordered an investigation to determine if the agents were attempting to harass the journalist. As a result of this incident and others, on November 28, Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha issued an order to his employees to respect the anonymity of journalists’ sources in court proceedings.

Almost five years after the murder of U.S. journalist Philip True, two people who defended a pair of Huichol Indians accused in the case said they now believe that the men are guilty. In late November, both the private investigator who worked to win their release and the U.S. citizen who funded portions of their defense said the two men, Juan Chivarra de la Cruz and his brother-in-law Miguel Hernández de la Cruz, privately confessed to killing True and should be brought to justice. At year’s end, the legal impact of these new developments remained unclear.

True, the San Antonio Express-News Mexico City bureau chief, was killed in December 1998 while working on a story about the Huichol Indians, an indigenous population that lives in a mountainous area stretching across Jalisco, Nayarit, and Durango states. Police arrested Chivarra and Hernández shortly after the murder, but a municipal judge released them in August 2001. In February 2003, a federal court overturned a later appellate court sentence of 13 years. Chivarra and Hernández are now free pending a ruling by the Jalisco State Supreme Court.