The original headline of Luces del Siglo, left, reads Crime Gaining Ground but the headline of the fake cover, right, reads No Truce With Crime. (Articulo 19)

Governor 'cloned' Cancún magazine to create fake covers with positive stories

By David Agren/ CPJ Mexico Correspondent on September 25, 2014 11:00 AM ET

The Cancún-based investigative magazine Luces del Siglo has won a court decision ordering the Quintana Roo state government to stop "cloning" the covers of its weekly editions and spreading the fake versions via social networks, according to news reports.

The September 19 decision from a federal judge prohibits government personnel from taking covers with critical headlines and swapping the text and artwork for headlines more favorable to public officials. Governor Roberto Borge Ángulo was also ordered to declare to the court today if "the acts attributed to him are true or not."

"It means they have to stop defaming us as a media outlet," Norma Madero, owner and president of the privately owned Luces del Siglo, told CPJ after learning of the ruling on Monday. She had pursued the case with legal assistance from freedom of expression organization Article 19.

The case comes as a setback to a state government at odds with independent media outlets and critical journalists writing investigative pieces, or daring to portray politicians in unflattering ways. It also highlights how political parties and politicians in Mexico are alleged to be influencing the spread of information on the Internet and via social media in ways that provide an incomplete or inaccurate picture, or silence critics.

Attempts at financially injuring independent media outlets in Mexico are common -- often through the withdrawal of advertising by state and local governments, which can account for almost all revenue at newspapers. Attacks on the press have also made the country one of the most dangerous for journalists, according to CPJ research.

"They're trying to use our brand," Madero said of the government's actions. The magazine, with a circulation of 10,000 issues, "has good penetration and creditability in the society." Article 19 has documented 32 attempts by the Quintana Roo government at online "cloning" -- in effect, replicating Luces del Siglo covers with more positive images and headlines.

The original cover, left, shows the governor under the headline Aimless but the fake cover, right, states Three Years of Delivering. (Articulo 19)

Lydia Cacho, one of the country's top journalists, has alleged that state-government attempts at cloning have targeted other media outlets covering Quintana Roo, including La Razón QR, Reforma, and the online publication Sin Embargo. "There is ample evidence of how this group of cyber soldiers [as they call themselves] intervene in newspapers and clone them to spread false information," Cacho wrote in Sin Embargo.

Quintana Roo government spokesman Rangel Rosado Ruiz did not respond to CPJ interview requests made through government offices in the state capital Chetumal.

In a recent incident of cloning, a cover about the governor's political group in Cozumel was changed to read, "Quintana Roo: State with solid finances and historic investment" - the opposite of the government's large debt that was reported by Luces del Siglo.

Another cover critical of the criminalization of protests in Quintana Roo -- the result of a new state law prohibiting protesters from blocking streets and access to buildings -- was cloned to show the same photo of protests, but with the headline, "Civil society: Positive to the social order laws."

A cover with an image of Borge wielding a mallet menacingly against civil society was switched to show him in the same pose, but with the headline: "Heavy hand against crime." And a cover with the governor at a ship's wheel under the headline, "Aimless," was changed to show a photo of the governor smiling, with the headline, "Three years of delivering."

The headline of the real Luces del Siglo cover, left, reads No Justice in Sand Robbery but the headline on the fake version, right, reads Government Investigation Into Sand Robbery Continues. (Articulo 19)

The court decision prohibits "the elaboration, dissemination, distribution or putting in circulation covers and spoof edition of the weekly Luces del Siglo," according to the court ruling, which was posted on the magazine's website.

It provides somewhat of a respite for Luces del Siglo. Its journalists and editors have been followed and photographed while they carried out interviews in public, and the magazine has previously had print editions stolen and sales space denied, Madero told CPJ. Article 19 said that the magazine's print edition was cloned six times.

The magazine was started a decade ago in Quintana Roo by Madero's late husband, Joaquín Paredes Fuentes, as an attempt to offer independent journalism, Madero told CPJ during an interview in Cancún in August. It found plenty to investigate as Cancún -- a sleepy fishing outpost 40 years earlier -- and Playa del Carmen, became international tourism hotspots, but were beset by allegations of shady land deals and real estate developments often done in ecologically sensitive areas or mangroves.

"The big business in Quintana Roo is selling land," Madero said. Politics and social development provided more subjects for the magazine. "The Cancún brand is known worldwide," Madero said. "But in social development, there's a 40-year lag."

The magazine was sold in Oxxo convenience stores -- a large chain -- in the southeastern state, but issues started to either be bought in bulk or simply disappear, Madero said. Other times, fake content was inserted into the magazines, and some stores started refusing to receive issues, saying they would lose their state-issued liquor licenses, according to Agustin Ambriz Hernández, director general of Luces del Siglo.

The magazine is now available online, at a few restaurants, and can be mailed to subscribers. It receives no state government advertising, unlike other publications in the state.

The Luces del Siglo cover, left, criticizing the criminalization of protests was cloned, right, with the headline Civil Society: Positive to the Social Order Laws.(Articulo 19)

"The media in Quintana Roo is very much controlled," said Vicente Carrera, owner and publisher of the independent online news website Noticaribe in Playa del Carmen. Many media outlets survive on agreements with the state government, he said, adding that journalism, "Only gets you into trouble."

Noticaribe allegedly ran afoul of Borge after publishing an article and photo of him attending the 2011 Champions League soccer final in London, featuring his favorite team, Barcelona. The state government did not disclose his whereabouts and had tried to keep it quiet, Carrera said.

He said that after the article was published, his website was targeted by a series of cyber attacks that flooded his bandwidth and forced Noticaribe one of the most read sites on the Yucatán Peninsula, with 10,000 hits daily -- to migrate to a blog-hosting service. "It was so constant that I had to close the site," Carrera said.

The move to the blog site brought a new hardship: an inability to sell advertisements forced Noticaribe to reduce its staff from "five or six" to just two. Carrera now holds two other jobs to make ends meet.

"We're doing this out of love, not because it's profitable," he said.

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