Mexico must federalize crimes against press

In Mexico, where violence against the press has become an epidemic, a debate is raging about what should be done to confront this terrible problem. Since 2000, 21 journalists have been killed, seven of them in direct reprisal for their work. The record of violence has produced widespread self-censorship, particularly among regional journalists covering drug trafficking and human rights issues.

This is an intolerable situation and everyone in Mexico from the president on down agrees that the federal government must step in to address it, particularly since the state authorities which generally handle murder cases have a nearly unblemished record of failure when it comes to prosecuting journalists’ killers. The question is what?

In an op-ed published Saturday in El Universal, a leading daily in Mexico City, CPJ Senior Americas program coordinator Carlos Lauria and I look at the options. Earlier this month, the Mexican congress held a consultative meeting to hear from interested groups and discuss different proposals. One of the key points of discussion was how to define “journalist” in any new legislation. In our view, there is no need to develop a legal definition (an extremely complicated process in the best of times compounded now by rapidly changing technology). Instead of protecting a class of people, we argue, the legislation should protect the fundamental right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed to all Mexicans, including journalists, in the constitution.

In June, a CPJ delegation met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who agreed that federal legislation protecting freedom of expression was needed. Calderon’s attorney general, however, suggested that legislation making a federal crime of causing “social alarm” would serve this purpose.

Many groups, including CPJ, are concerned that social alarm is a vague concept that could elude a clear legal definition. We certainly noted the cool reaction to this idea when we met with members of Congress in Mexico City.

While there are different proposals now circulating on how best to stem the tide of violence against the press in Mexico there is fundamental point of agreement among most of the various local and international groups involved in discussions. The legislation must focus on broadly protecting freedom of expression. As we note at the end of our op-ed piece, the scope of the problem demands an immediate response and the time for action is now.