Mexican newspaper faces harassment

May 12, 2016 12:18 PM ET

Mexico City, May 12, 2016 - The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the increasing harassment of the Mexican daily newspaper Vanguardia and its staff. In recent weeks, Vanguardia's website was attacked, police raided its owner's ranch, a former local official sued the newspaper, and unknown men followed one of its reporters home, according to Vanguardia, the oldest and largest-circulation newspaper in Saltillo, capital of the northern state of Coahuila.

"We call on Mexican authorities to exhaustively investigate Vanguardia's claim of a campaign aimed at intimidating the newspaper and its reporters," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas in New York. "Authorities must ensure that Vanguardia can continue to report on sensitive issues without fear of retribution."

In a May 5 editorial, the daily denounced a campaign to harass the newspaper. Vanguardia said unknown men followed one of its reporters, whose name it first withheld. The paper several days later identified the reporter as Roxana Romero, who told CPJ that two individuals followed her in a car as she returned home from work the night of May 4. When she reached her home, the individuals stopped at a nearby street corner and drove away, only to make another pass by her house shortly afterwards. According to Vanguardia, the same men had been seen near the editorial offices the day before.

The newspaper gave the journalist a temporary leave of absence and a security detail at her residence for her safety. She told CPJ she is currently assessing when or if it would be safe for her to return to work.

In its editorial, the paper said that its reporters were the target of smear attacks from several Coahuila websites, which appear to have been created solely to disparage its reporters. It also denounced an April attempt to make its website unavailable through a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack - in which multiple computers try to overload the server that hosts a website with rapid requests to deliver the site -- which the newspaper said originated from the states of Coahuila, Puebla, and Nuevo León. Vanguardia's technology staff blocked the DDoS attack, the newspaper said.

On Friday, lawyers for the former governor of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira, announced that the former governor had filed a lawsuit against both Romero and the newspaper for "moral damage" in relation to a February 18, 2016, article in which Romero alleged that the government improperly granted Moreira a pension in December 2015.

Moreira himself has not spoken publicly about the lawsuit. CPJ contacted his lawyers to convey a request for comment, but has not received a response from the former governor.

Moreira remains powerful in Coahuila's politics. He briefly served as president of the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), to which Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto belongs. His brother, Rubén Moreira, currently serves as governor of Coahuila.

Also on Friday, roughly 30 members of an elite state police corps raided the ranch of Vanguardia's owner, Armando Castilla Galindo, according to press reports. The raid, which was authorized by a court order, was meant to evict Castilla because of an unpaid mortgage debt from 2009, the press reports said. Vanguardia said the raid was conducted with force unprecedented in a civil suit, including the use of heavy machinery.

The Coahuila government said in a statement that police acted in compliance with the law.

Vanguardia has been the victim of attacks before. In 2011, a grenade was thrown at its editorial offices in Saltillo. In 2013, Vanguardia photographer Daniel Martínez Balzaldúa was murdered in Saltillo. Neither incident has resulted in arrests or convictions. In recent years, Coahuila has been the stage for violent turf wars between organized crime groups.

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist, according to CPJ research. Journalists often have to contend with threats of violence from authorities or members of criminal groups, according to CPJ research. Since 1992, at least 36 journalists have been killed for their work, while dozens more have died in unclear circumstances.

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