On two occasions in April 2020, the Mexican federal Interior Secretariat issued warnings to news outlets over their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and threatened to file administrative sanctions against them.
The secretariat issued the first warning on April 15, in a letter calling on the El Diario de Juárez and El Diario de Chihuahua newspapers not to “spread false information” about the pandemic.
The letter followed an April 14 report, published on the front pages of both newspapers, which belong to the same publishing company, about alleged government misreporting of pandemic deaths, which featured a photo of a room full of body bags.
The Mexican Institute for Social Security, a state body that operates a hospital in Ciudad Juárez cited in the article, denied the allegations the same day in a statement. The institute statement and news reports alleged that the photo included in the article was actually from Ecuador.
The Diario papers published a story later that day acknowledging that the photo was not taken in Mexico, but did not retract the news story.
In its April 15 statement, the Interior Secretariat said it would explore the possibility of applying “further measures” beyond the letter asking the papers not to spread false information, without specifying what those might be or which laws may be invoked.
One day later, however, the secretariat said in an additional statement that it would not proceed with any sanctions, citing instructions from Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The secretariat issued its second warning on April 18 in a statement addressing the privately owned broadcaster TV Azteca.
The statement alleged that anchor Javier Alatorre’s criticism that day of Federal Undersecretary for Public Health Hugo López-Gatell, who leads the government’s COVID-19 taskforce, violated citizens’ constitutional “right to health” by casting doubt on official data.
In his broadcast, Alatorre had asked his audience to “no longer listen to [López-Gatell],” and alleged that the undersecretary had provided statistics to the public that did not match those given by some local officials, and therefore had become “irrelevant.”
In its statement, the secretariat said it had ordered TV Azteca to drop this line of criticism against López-Gatell, and said that it would apply an administrative sanction to the broadcaster if it continued, without specifying what that sanction might be or which law would apply.
CPJ called the Interior Secretariat multiple times for comment, but no one answered the phone.