Defining who is a journalist, Mexican style

This month, the Mexican Senate approved an amendment to the country’s constitution that would make attacks on journalists a federal crime in Mexico.

The amendment, which now needs to be ratified by state legislatures, has important potential benefits for the ongoing safety of Mexico’s journalists, the reduction of the country’s 90% impunity rate, and press freedom in general. Attacks on reporters in Mexico‘s drug cartel-dominated regions are strongly linked with attempts to silence or distort wider knowledge about the corruption and organized crime; local investigations are frequently hampered by internal corruption of law enforcement and the suspected involvement of drug lords and prominent local officials.

There’s a wider benefit of Mexico’s amendment which has applications worldwide:  It would be one of the first laws to broadly protect the new types of journalism that are emerging from online practice, with enough room to catch formats that we cannot even predict.

Defining who and who isn’t a journalist in the modern age is an ongoing challenge for academics and reporters themselves, and the difficulty of coming up with a stable definition has created serious problems for those trying to pass journalist protection laws.

In the U.S., for instance, a federal reporter shield law foundered in part on how reporters should be defined. Other recently passed laws, such as the 2009 French Press Protection Act, have struggled to include new media reporters as well as more traditional reporters. Mexican senators told us that alternatives to the current Mexican amendment also grappled unsuccessfully with a useful definition.

The final language of Mexico’s amendment empowers the federal authorities to try any offense “contra periodistas, personas o instalaciones que afecten, limiten o menoscaben el derecho a la información o las libertades de expresión o imprenta” — “against journalists, people, or outlets that affects, limits, or impinges upon the right to information and freedom of expression and the press.”

What’s useful about this language is that it accepts that there will always be a central and primary role for journalists (however we define journalists in the future), but that in attacks on the press, others can be caught in the crossfire. The Mexican Congress has chosen not to try to redefine the term journalist, but seeks to ensure that whenever a criminal mounts an attack on the freedom of the press, the federal authorities can intervene.

Of course, constitutional amendments are allowed a little more leeway in their language than the laws and court judgments that spell out how they should be enacted. And the effectiveness of Mexico’s press protections will depend far more on the secondary legislation and the vigor of its investigating prosecutors than the letter of the law.

Nonetheless, it’s a vital first step that Mexico has devised language that works for the way the 21st century press operates. Let’s hope that other countries struggling with similar impunity challenges take it up.