Mayan journalist Pedro Canché spent 271 days in prison on charges of sabotage. Authorities alleged Canché organized protests one year ago against rising water bills in the Zona Maya south of Cancún, in Quintana Roo state, where demonstrators stormed the offices of the local waterworks, CPJ research shows.
A federal judge threw out the case on May 28 as court documents demonstrated Canché wasn’t actually at the protests in question, had no relationship with the ringleaders, and no service disruption or damage occurred at the waterworks in question–important for proving a sabotage charge.
After Canché’s release, Quintana Roo Governor Roberto Borge Angulo introduced legislation he said was intended to protect journalists and human rights defenders. Critics, including Canché, derided the measure, saying it will instead restrict press freedom by allowing the government to decide who is a journalist and who isn’t.
The state legislature approved the Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists of Quintana Roo on August 3. The law only applies to journalists working in a “permanent way with remuneration,” potentially preventing freelancers and reporters working without compensation from obtaining credentials, accessing public events, and receiving the protections outlined in case of emergency.
“This is the ‘Pedro Canché law,’” Canché told CPJ in the Mayan town of Tihosuco. His case captured national attention. The National Human Rights Commission ordered the state government to apologize to Canché, but Borge refused. During Canché’s detention, Borge’s office insisted Canché “isn’t a journalist,” even though he has worked as a reporter for the Mexican news agency Notimex and other dailies and a radio station. Now an independent journalist and activist for Mayan causes, Canché has begun writing for the news website Animal Político since his release.
Lydia Cacho an award-winning investigative journalist, author, and human rights defender, told CPJ that the law contradicts international standards on freedom of expression. Cacho, who has denounced persecution from local authorities and has been labeled by the state government as an “enemy of Quintana Roo,” said the legislation seriously restricts the work of independent journalists.
Cacho fled Quintana Roo after the appointment of Jaime Alberto Ongay Ortiz as police chief of the local municipality of Benito Juárez in late July. According to Cacho, Ongay was involved in her 2005 detention after she was accused of defaming Puebla-based businessman José Camel Nacif Borge. In her book Los Demonios del Edén (The Demons of Eden), published earlier that year, Cacho alleged that a child prostitution ring operated in Cancún with the complicity of local police and politicians.
Quintana Roo attracts millions of tourists annually to its white sand beaches and an area along the Caribbean coast marketed as the “Mayan Riviera.” The fast growing state, with a population swelled by job-seekers from southeastern Mexico, has become one of the most repressive in the country.
Six journalists and two of their lawyers told CPJ of continuous online attacks, harassment, and intimidation. For example, pornographic images are regular posted to
Canché’s Twitter account by other users. “If I publish something, they send me threats,” Canché says. “We’re being sent a ton of pornography, both me and the people following me.”
All of the interviewees said they consider the new protection law unnecessary since violence is less of an issue in the southeastern state–unlike in other parts of Mexico, such as the state of Veracruz.
“This law is a simulation and a joke,” said Vicente Carrera, founder of Noticaribe, an online news organization based in Playa del Carmen, which has been hit often by denial of service attacks, known as DDOS, since Borge took office in 2010. “It’s supposed to protect journalists, but the main person harassing journalists is the governor himself.”
“The important issue here has been attacks by the government on journalists and media outlets. The law doesn’t touch this,” said Sergio Caballero, Proceso correspondent in Cancún. “By decree, they are trying to annul the poor image that the government has for its intolerance of freedom of expression.”
Interview requests with Quintana Roo government spokesman Rangel Rosado Ruiz went unanswered. Borge belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The Quintana Roo law created councils for responding to aggressions against the press. It establishes economic support for journalists, providing health care, housing credits, and funds for training and purchasing equipment to those accredited with the state government. It’s a sticky point for media outlets carrying out critical coverage and often in adversarial relationships with the authorities.
“This is institutionalized ‘chayo,’” said Carrera, using slang for money paid to the press by politicians in Mexico, often in an informal or unrecognized way.
“The objective of this law, is for (the governor) to say that he has no problems with journalists,” said Agustin Ambríz Hernández, director-general of Luces del Siglo. The investigative magazine has had its covers “cloned”–the unfavorable cover headline or photo replaced with something more flattering and then spread online–by the governor’s staff. (A federal judge ordered the officials to stop). Ambríz said staff members have suffered intimidation attempts and that interviewees often look over their shoulder, afraid to be seen talking to journalists.
Other reporters also allege repression and colleagues being fired for critical coverage of the government. Proceso reported that government officials tried to link Caballero, its correspondent, with an arrested drug dealer, and spread the rumors via Twitter.
While Canché was imprisoned, media outlets in Quintana Roo published allegations, including reports based on photos from his Facebook page, that he was living a life of luxury and is a “professional provoker.” Luces del Siglo later published documents showing the text came from the state government’s communications office.
“There was a media lynching while I was in prison,” Canché says.
Canché still resides in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, where he was imprisoned, though the impact of his legal struggles left a business of building deckchairs for hotels (and funding his journalistic pursuits) in ruins. He was approached about running for public office, but prefers to stay out of party politics.
He harbors hopes of founding a Mayan newspaper one day and is staying active on social media and writing freelance stories and columns when he can. Prison and his political opposition have come at a cost, however.
“A lot of people now recognize me,” Canché told me while waiting for a collective taxi to take us to his home in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. “They come up and greet me, but I don’t know who’s a friend and who isn’t.”
[Reporting from Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Mexico]