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In Mexico, a movement and a bill against impunity

Protesters seek justice in journalist murders in Veracruz, one of the nation's deadliest places for the press. (Reuters/Edgard Garrido)

Who can say exactly when the work of press freedom groups, human rights defenders, and budding networks of Mexican journalists became a movement? It would have been many murders, many funerals, many orphans ago. It would have been countless news events--about crime, corruption, violence--that went uncovered because reporters and news organizations concluded that the only way to survive was to stay silent. But finally, several years ago, the work of all these groups began to push the massacre of the Mexican press on to the national agenda. On Thursday, the movement led to a bill that gives the federal government jurisdiction over crimes against journalists. Today, the measure awaits only the president's approval. 

So somehow in Mexico--where corrupt state authorities have failed nearly completely in bringing justice in journalist murders--things could change. The federal attorney general has discretion under the new legislation to investigate and prosecute crimes against journalists. There are some limitations and one significant hole, but more on that later.

Let's go back to the beginning. For years, the movement against impunity found no sympathy in the states, where many officials were quite satisfied with the murderous status quo, or in the administration, where presidents promised national solutions but did not follow through. In the end, the movement against impunity found a receptive audience in the national legislature.

The Senate showed that it was listening to the NGOs and press organizations, that its eyes were open to the bodies of all the dead journalists. Last year, it passed a constitutional amendment that protected journalists and news organizations, but it was so broad that it needed enabling legislation to change federal laws, codes and procedures. So with the coordination of the American NGO Freedom House, a broad group of Mexican academicians and legal experts, representatives of press freedom groups and human rights officials set to work. I represented CPJ and, as it turned out, I was the only member who had ever covered a news story.

We came up with draft legislation that was quite tough. It swept aside the state attorneys general, made the federal government responsible for anti-press crimes, and strengthened an existing special prosecutor's office so that it could do real investigations. The idea was to make just one person-- the federal special prosecutor--responsible for solving serious crimes against journalists throughout the country. If the crimes were not being solved, we'd know who was responsible.

I thought it might be too tough to get through assembly. But there was momentum building for journalists that I had not gauged. Members of our group presented the proposed legislation to senators, who liked it and wanted to make it their own. I took it, cautiously, to Silvano Aureoles, head of the Democratic Revolution Party caucus in the lower house. He said: "If you can get this through the Senate, no one is going to stand up in the Chamber of Deputies and oppose it. It's about saving journalists." That surprised me. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, head of the majority Institutional Revolutionary Party caucus in the lower house, said just about the same thing. They believed it was an issue of the moment.

There was opposition from some senators on technical grounds because they thought the bill went further than the constitutional amendment allowed. But our anti-impunity group got the chief lawyer of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country's most important, to smooth out the wording and chat with the senators. The problem went away. At the last minute, as senate committees were about to approve the measure, our group lobbied for changes that give greater presumption to work-related motives in anti-press attacks, thus making the bill stronger. Sen. Roberto Gil picked up his copy, supported it on his knee, and noted in the margin the revisions suggested by members of our group. The assembled senators waited; the changes were made. And last week the bill passed the Senate unanimously.

The vote in the lower house Thursday was all one way, with a single abstention. The measure still has to be signed by President Peña Nieto still, but his party is completely behind it.

Political and social pressures could have worked against the bill. A big one is that it looks like journalists are getting special protection at a time when all Mexicans are vulnerable to crime and very few of their cases are solved either. The fact that journalists are special targets because of their work hasn't been a winning argument, partly because journalists are often seen as unprofessional and easily corrupted. Then, there's the matter of states' rights. The bill strips some powers from state authorities. Sometimes, journalists will tell you, corrupt state authorities want to keep the press afraid so reporters won't do stories about them. Now, state politicians' control is shakier.

The executive branch of the federal government will now have more responsibility than it might want. The attorney general says the department he took over in December is an organizational catastrophe and the country is overrun with criminals, so he may not be looking for more work. When the proposed the legislation was presented to the attorney general's office the response was to cut it to pieces, giving the attorney general much less power and, of course, less accountability. But the powers were restored after lobbying in the Senate. The attorney general did succeed in doing something that might prove serious. He convinced senators that he needed more time to reorganize, so they deleted a very important section that was to have strengthened the office of the federal special prosecutor. Now it's unclear who exactly will be responsible for the investigations that will go to the attorney general.

So while the legislation gives the attorney general the power to prosecute anti-press crime, what happens if he doesn't want to use it?

That's when the movement will be tested anew.

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