Free speech under attack in Mexico

From Mexico’s El Universal, Feb. 16, via the Miami Herald:

Fox calls for probe in Lydia Cacho case
The governor of Puebla is under fire after he is allegedly heard discussing the jailing of a journalist on a tape released to the media

The federal government on Wednesday condemned an alleged plot by a state governor and a prominent businessman to jail a journalist for libel after she wrote a book about networks of pedophiles and child pornographers.

Police arrested reporter Lydia Cacho in December in Cancun, drove her 20 hours to Puebla, and charged her with making false accusations against the businessman in her book, The Demons of Eden.

The alleged plot to make the arrest came to light Tuesday when W Radio and capital newspaper La Jornada aired a taped conversation reported to be between Puebla Gov. Mario Marín and the businessman.

Rubén Aquilar, spokesman for President Vicente Fox, on Wednesday said that the supposed conspiracy against Cacho should be thoroughly investigated.

“The presidency condemns acts by any authority that violate the rule of law and try to limit freedom of expression, especially the liberty of the press,” Aguilar said in a news conference. “Cases like this one have no place in the republic.”

Cacho was released on bail, but still faces defamation charges.

In the taped conversation, the voice identified by local media as that of the businessman offers Marín “a beautiful bottle of cognac” after the two discuss the arrest of Cacho.

Marín on Wednesday denied that the voice in the recording is his. At a news conference, he called the reports about his involvement “lies and falsehoods” and called the recording a poorly made fraud.

La Jornada and W Radio said they did not know who provided them with the tape.

The two leading presidential candidates, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party, also denounced the alleged plot.

Additionally, some federal deputies have demanded the resignation of Marín, who is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo called for an investigation, but stopped short of coming out against Marín.

A spokesman for the governor, Valentín Meneses, told W Radio that the recording violated Mexico´s privacy laws – though he denied the governor was involved.

Aguilar said that the president´s office also condemns the taping of private conversations.

“What we have heard in these recordings is brutal,” he said. “It is outrageous. Nobody can justify it. But it is also outrageous that there is a continued violation of the rule of law and that personal conversations are recorded.”

In the last three years, several tapes and videos showing alleged acts of corruption have been aired on television. One showed alleged federal agents shooting dead a supposed drug trafficker they were holding. Another showed a politician packing a suitcase with wads of dollar bills in the office of a construction contractor.

The way Cacho was arrested has been criticized by several international journalist groups, including Reporters Without Borders and the Inter-American Press Association.

From the Committee to Protect Journalists, Feb. 6, via Chiapas95:

MEXICO: Columnist arrested and accused of contempt
New York — The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by the imprisonment of a Mexican reporter. Angel Mario Ksheratto columnist for the daily Cuarto Poder in the southern state of Chiapas, was detained on Saturday and accused of contempt after missing a court date in connection with a criminal defamation complaint filed against him for reporting on government corruption.

Ksheratto was arrested on Saturday morning by state police and jailed in El Amate, a maximum security prison in the town of Cintalapa, the Mexican press said. He was still being held Monday.

The columnist is required to appear every week before a local judge in connection with a 2003 criminal defamation complaint. Ksheratto must travel 65 miles (120 kilometers) from his base in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital, to sign a court record while the defamation charges are pending, the daily La Jornada reported.

“In prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs, Chiapas state authorities are out of step with the rest of Mexico and the region, both of which are moving to eliminate these laws,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We are dismayed by the imprisonment of our colleague and call for his immediate release.”

The case stems from two articles published by Ksheratto in August 2002 into alleged irregularities in a state-run agency responsible for the construction of schools. The columnist alleged that a local public official had used state money to build her house. The official filed a criminal defamation lawsuit and Ksheratto was arrested on January 9, 2003. He was released on bail the next day.

Unlike many other places in Latin America, the state of Chiapas has moved to stiffen criminal defamation laws. In February 2004, the Chiapas state congress unanimously approved amendments to Articles 164, 169, and 173 of the state’s penal code, drastically increasing penalties for defamation. Articles 164 and 169 raised minimum penalties for defamation and libel from two to three years and maximum penalties from five to nine years. In addition, the amended articles make defamation and libel felonies and impose heavier fines. These changes are not likely to apply in the Ksheratto case, but they have sparked concern among journalists.

The changes were especially pernicious because they reclassified defamation as a felony. Because the penalties for criminal defamation have been increased so severely, journalists who are convicted and sentenced to more than four years in prison can’t have their sentences suspended or commuted to probation.

Laws that criminalize speech that does not incite lawless violence are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression as established under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which Mexico has ratified. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated in 1994, “Considering the consequences of criminal sanctions and the inevitable chilling effect they have on freedom of expression, criminalization of speech can only apply in those exceptional circumstances when there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence.”

Though imprisonment for press offenses has fallen into disuse in the Americas, prosecution on criminal defamation charges remains common. In August 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights announced a ruling overturning the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter with the daily La Nacion. The Costa Rica-based court ruled that the sentence violated his right to freedom of expression and ordered Costa Rica to pay damages to him. The court’s president, Judge Sergio Garci’a Ramirez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion questioning the criminalization of defamation and suggesting that such laws be repealed.

See our last post on Mexico.

  1. More details on the Puebla case

    On Feb. 14 the left-leaning Mexican daily La Jornada published transcripts of tapes of telephone conversations said to involve Puebla garment manufacturer Kamel Nacif Borge, other manufacturers, a reporter, Puebla governor Mario Marin Torres and Chiapas governor Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia. The conversations occurred in mid-December 2005 and concerned the Dec. 16 arrest of Cancun-based journalist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro by Puebla police. Cacho’s 2005 book Demons of Eden named Nacif as a friend and protector of hotel owner Jean Succar Kuri, who fled Mexico in 2003 after being accused of heading a child sex ring in Cancun. Puebla authorities charged Cacho with defamation for the book; Puebla police took her from her home in Cancun in Quintana Roo, drove her hundreds of miles to Puebla and jailed her for 24 hours before she was released on bail.

    In the conversations a man said to be Nacif is heard gloating over Cacho’s arrest and telling friends he was arranging for her to be raped while in prison. In one conversation, a man who appears to be Gov. Marin is talking familiarly with Nacif: “Yesterday I kicked this old bitch’s ass,” the governor says. In another conversation, Nacif tells fellow apparel manufacturer Luis Angel Casas, the head of finances for Marin’s election campaign, that he had just talked to Gov. Salazar Meniguchia. The Chiapas governor told him: “[I]f you want, we’ll go to [Jose Luis] Soberanes, he’s my friend, the one for human rights. We’ll make a big fight.” Soberances heads the government’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). Nacif is known as the “denim king” in Mexico because of his garment maquiladoras (tax-exempt assembly plants producing for export) in Tehuacan, Puebla.

    The scandal quickly spilled over into the campaign for the July 2 presidential election. Gov. Marin is a member of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo Pintado had to distance himself from the governor. On Feb. 18 Madrazo charged that Nacif is linked to the directors of Vamos Mexico (“Let’s Go, Mexico”), a foundation set up by Marta Sahagun de Fox, wife of President Vicente Fox Quesada, of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). PAN presidential candidate Felipe Calderon Hinojosa is now attempting to distance himself from Vamos Mexico.

    At a forum in Mexico City on Feb. 17, Cacho suggested that Fox and Sahagun might be responsible for the delays in extraditing Jean Succar, who has been imprisoned in Arizona for more than a year, to face charges in the child abuse case. “Marta Sahagun and the president consider [Nacif] a very honorable person,” she said. (LJ, Feb. 14, 18, 19; Amnesty International Urgent Action, Feb. 9; El Diario-La Prensa, NY, Feb. 19 from La Opinion)

    From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 19