CPJ Asks Mexican President to Ensure Safety of Journalists

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His Excellency
Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León
President of Mexico
Los Pinos
Mexico City


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13 July 1998


Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to express concern for the safety of journalists covering conflict areas in Mexico. In the last several months, we have received a series of complaints -- ranging from physical attacks to detention -- from journalists working in the states of Chiapas and Guerrero, where insurgent groups are active. We ask you to take adequate measures to ensure that journalists are able to freely carry out their work.

Below is an account of recent incidents:

Several journalists have been physically assaulted or threatened by local authorities. On June 5, photographer Pascual Gorriz of the Associated Press (AP) was confronted by a state police commander in the town of Nicolás Ruiz in Chiapas state. The commander ordered police officers to "take away his camera (quitarle la cámara)." When the officers did not comply, the commander began chanting "foreigner, foreigner (extranjero, extranjero)" in a clear attempt to incite the crowd to take action. Both Gorriz and Oriana Elicabe of Agence France Presse (AFP) were beaten at the Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport in Chiapas on April 12 by police officers who tried to confiscate their film. The photographers were covering the expulsion of a group of foreign human rights observers from Mexico.

Journalists covering events of legitimate public interest have been denied access by military authorities. After the June 7 firefight between the Mexican army and the members of the Revolutionary Popular Army (EPR) in El Charco, Guerrero, in which 11 people were killed, military authorities sealed off the area to journalists for 24 hours. Three days later, on June 10, 10 people were killed when army troops and state police stormed the town of El Bosque in Chiapas. Soldiers stationed outside the town allowed a handful of Mexican journalists to pass but barred the foreign reporters, including Janet Schwartz from Novedades and Tabasco Hoy, Pascual Gorriz from AP, Oriana Elicabe from AFP, and Jesús Ramírez from Reuters.

Foreign journalists working in Mexico have been detained by immigration authorities. On June 28, free-lance journalist Paige Bierma was returning from Aguas Blancas, Guerrero, where she had gone to cover Mexican university students who had visited the town to commemorate the third anniversary of the massacre of 17 peasants by state authorities. At a military checkpoint, Bierma was forced off the bus and questioned by immigration authorities. Despite showing a valid journalist's visa, and a press pass from Newsweek magazine, she was told to sign a two-page form agreeing to appear before immigration authorities in Mexico City the following morning. Bierma refused to sign. She did arrange a meeting in Mexico City on June 30 with immigration authorities, who apologized for the incident.

In addition, we have received a number of complaints from journalists in the United States who have requested visas at Mexican consulates. According to journalists' reports, consular officials questions them about who they planned interview, and what they planned to write about. Often their visas are held up for weeks or months.

A government campaign to crack down on human rights groups who engage in "Revolutionary tourism" in Chiapas has created new difficulties and dangers for foreign journalists. On May 5, Darrin Wood, who writes for Nuevo Amenecer Press, was included in a list of 163 foreigners who were denounced in the Congress for allegedly entering Mexico through a third country with the intention of destabilizing Chiapas. Wood, a U.S. citizen, lives in Madrid. Nuevo Amenecer Press is an Internet-based agency that covers human rights in Mexico. In a separate incident, Janet Schwartz from Novedades and Tabasco Hoy, a Mexican photographer, and New York Times correspondent Julia Preston were shoved and confined for two hours in a school house by hostile villagers in San Gerónimo Tulija, Chiapas.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, CPJ has been encouraged by the increased freedom and independence of the Mexican press during your administration. However, to ensure that journalists continue to be able to freely carry out their work, we urge you to take the following actions:

1) Make it clear to state and local authorities that police officials who attack or threaten journalists will face prosecution under Mexican law;

2) Instruct immigration officials that foreign journalists with a proper visa (FM-3) are authorized to work in Mexico and should not be detained;

3) Publicly re-affirm the importance of the work of the press in conflict areas so that local communities do not misinterpret your comments about recent restrictions placed on non-Mexican human rights observers as license to attack foreign journalists.

Thank you for your consideration. We await your prompt response.



Ann K. Cooper

Executive Director