Mexico should federalize crimes against free expression

New York, April 6, 2009–The Mexican Congress must move expeditiously to approve a constitutional reform granting federal authorities jurisdiction over crimes against free expression, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, approved a measure last week imposing penalties for crimes against “journalistic activity,” an encouraging but still preliminary step, CPJ said.

“The wave of unprecedented violence in Mexico is undermining the fundamental right of Mexicans to express themselves freely,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We urge congressional leaders to show their full commitment to the protection of freedom of expression by approving a constitutional amendment that will give federal authorities the power to take on crimes against journalists.” 

Federal authorities would be given broad authority to investigate and prosecute crimes against free expression under an amendment to Article 73 of the Mexican Constitution, a proposal that was approved by the Constitutional Committee of the Chamber of Deputies on March 18. The amendment is now being considered by the chamber’s Justice Committee, according to congressional sources. A vote before the full chamber is expected in the next two weeks, with Senate action to follow, these officials told CPJ.      

The Chamber of Deputies voted 263-0 last Thursday to add to the federal penal code penalties for crimes against “journalistic activity.” The measure imposes penalties of up to five years in prison for anyone who “impedes, interferes, limits or attacks against journalistic activity.” Sentences are doubled if the assailant is a public official. The punishment would be applied independent of existing penalties. The measure is now before the Senate.

Journalistic activity is defined as “the exercise of seeking, collecting, photographing, investigating, synthesizing, drafting, editing, printing, exposing, publishing or disseminating information, news, ideas, opinions or knowledge to the general public by means of any media outlet, as well as the distribution of these ideas.” The legislation states that “this activity can be undertaken regularly or sporadically, be paid or not without there being a need for a labor relationship with a media outlet.”

“We commend the Chamber of Deputies for taking a step forward in the fight to end impunity in crimes against free expression,” Lauría said. “However, the enactment of new penalties will not have the profound effect that is needed without the adoption of constitutional reform.”

Congress adjourns at the end of April and, with mid-term elections scheduled for July, the best opportunity to adopt the legislation is in the next four weeks, Lauría said.

According to CPJ’s annual survey Attacks on the Press, Mexico is one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world. Since 2000, 25 journalists have been killed, at least eight in direct reprisal for their work. In addition, seven journalists have disappeared since 2005. In June 2008, a CPJ delegation met with President Felipe Calderón, who expressed support for federal legislation protecting free expression.

CPJ research has found that local and state authorities in Mexico have been ineffective in solving press-related cases and, in some instances, have been complicit in the crimes.