Mexico City, December 7, 2012--Mexican authorities must immediately release a freelance Romanian photojournalist who was detained on Saturday while covering a protest related to the presidential inauguration, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Police arrested Mircea Topolenau, a Romanian citizen who lives in Mexico, and charged him with participating in a riot after he was unable to show any official credentials designating him as a journalist, according to his attorney, Rosa María Rodríguez. The lawyer also said that Topolenau had been unable to prove that he had been photographing the event because officers had taken his camera when he was arrested. Topolenau was covering Saturday's demonstration in the capital where thousands of people had gathered to protest the inauguration of Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto.
Rodríguez said that the police did not provide Topolenau with a translator during his first two days in custody, even though Mexico City law requires that a translator be provided to anyone who does not speak Spanish. Topolenau is being held at Reclusorio Norte, a notoriously harsh prison in Mexico City. If found guilty, he could face from five to 37 years in prison, his lawyer told CPJ.
Laura Woldenberg, an executive of Vice Mexico, the Mexican edition of the international print and online magazine Vice, told a court on Wednesday that Topolenau had been on assignment for the outlet, but that the contract was verbal, according to Rodríguez. She said Topolenau had occasionally worked as a photographer for social and cultural events in Mexico, which would not generally necessitate his having a press card. The prosecutor claimed in court that Topolenau could not prove he was a journalist because he did not have a written contract, according to Rodríguez.
Freelance journalists around the world often engage in verbal agreements with their employer. Many work on the expectation that they will sell their work to prospective clients after the story has been covered.
"It is outrageous that Mexican authorities continue to detain photographer Mircea Toponlenau for nearly a week when it's evident that he was a journalist just trying to do his job," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. "That this arrest occurred on the first day of President Enrique Peña Nieto's term, which comes on the heels of the most repressive period for the Mexican press in the country's history, is not a good sign. Authorities must free Topolenau immediately."
The head of Mexico City's Human Rights Commission said on Thursday that police had overreacted greatly in connection with the protests and made several arbitrary arrests. An investigation conducted by the commission found that at least 22 of the 88 detainees had been arrested without cause.
- For more data and analysis on Mexico, visit CPJ's Mexico page here.