Press Freedom Summit Urges Mexico to Reform Journalist Protections

By Jan-Albert Hootsen/CPJ Mexico Representative

Patricia Espinosa, the sister of Rubén Espinosa, a photographer murdered in 2015, and Alejandro Encinas, undersecretary for human rights, population, and migration, speak at CPJ’s press freedom summit. (Ian Garciafigueroa)

HAVANA TIMES – On June 18, more than 400 people converged in Mexico City for the Committee for the Protection of Journalist’s (CPJ) Mexico Press Freedom Summit. Energized by a sense that the country is at a point of profound political change under the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the conference delved into the threats for Mexican journalists.

Journalists called for the government to change its rhetoric against the press, to reform federal spending on advertisement, and to commit to transparency in rooting out illegal surveillance. The most urgent issues however, were the cycle of violence and impunity–Mexico has long been the deadliest country for the media in the Western Hemisphere–and the weakness of institutions created to protect journalists and investigate crimes against the press.

The overall feeling was one of profound crisis and also unprecedented opportunity as President López Obrador assumed office in December with an absolute majority for his Movement for National Regeneration (Morena) in Congress. But many also believe this window of opportunity is closing and have started to express doubts about whether the president will keep to commitments made during his election campaign.

“I believe the president has a historic opportunity to transform the relationship between the media and power and confront the question of impunity in violence against the press. But it is a passing opportunity,” CPJ’s executive director, Joel Simon, said in his opening remarks.

Participants said that the summit was just the first step and that the government needed to go beyond its promises. Several steps that López Obrador’s administration should take were identified, including:

Reform government advertising

The complicated relationship between state and media was a central issue at the summit, and the one that elicited the most concrete acknowledgement and commitment from political figures.

As CPJ has previously reported, massive discretionary federal spending on government advertisements has long sustained an unequal and complex relationship between the media and those in power. When newspapers and broadcasters become dependent on government money, it raises the risk that critical reporting will be silenced so as not to endanger a vital source of income.

The current administration has acknowledged the issue and promised change but, as Article 19’s regional director for Mexico and Central America Ana Cristina Ruelas, said Congress has yet to introduce any meaningful proposal for reform to a vote, despite having an initiative laid out by the press and civil safety.

“Saying that media have subsisted on public money is true,” she said, during a panel. “But it is also true that this government committed to changing the rules of the game … and it decided not to do it.”

During the final panel, Tatiana Clouthier, a member of Congress, described the laws on government spending as a “great challenge,” and Jesús Cantú, the head of information of the presidency, said the reforms were still a pending issue.

Reset the relationship between the presidency and the press

Summit attendees raised concerns about the president’s hostile rhetoric toward the press. Contrasting the president’s proposal during the electoral campaign for an amnesty for low-level members of organized crime with his confrontational attitude toward the press, Adela Navarro, the editor of weekly news magazine Zeta Tijuana, spoke about Lopez Obrador’s tendency to label the press sensationalist, gossipy, or elite. “The president has reconciled with the mafia of power, with the corrupt that persecuted him, including with people linked to organized crime whom he offered amnesty [but] with the press, however, he maintains a confrontation,” she said.

It seems unlikely that Lopez Obrador will change his rhetoric any time soon. In his daily press conference, the day after the summit, he characterized his relationship with the media as part of a healthy debate.

Create a stronger federal protection mechanism and end impunity

CPJ and other press freedom groups have consistently called on the government to strengthen the federal protection mechanism, which was founded in 2012 and currently enrolls over 300 journalists. Summit participants said that protection measures would always be inadequate if over 90 percent of cases remained in impunity.

Holding up a bulletproof vest that the government had sent her for protection, the investigative reporter Anabel Hernández asked, “This is the way to protect journalists?” The award-winning writer, who had to flee Mexico last year after threats against her life, said, “The only way to save the lives of journalists is to make the institutions work, to have investigations done and to have the government act like a government.”

The sub-secretary for human rights, Alejandro Encinas, told the summit that he intended to reform the protection mechanism in line with recommendations from the United Nations. Recent funding cuts, however, have hampered its operations, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

Encinas provided fewer specifics when it came to impunity. He acknowledged the role of state actors in perpetrating crimes against journalists, which has generated widespread distrust in the government’s capacity and willingness to investigate crimes against the press. In a promising sign, he framed impunity as the responsibility of the federal government.

The Federal Attorney General’s office is currently being reformed, providing an ideal opportunity to restructure how federal authorities approach crimes against freedom of expression and to create a more effective law enforcement. It is not yet clear if investigating attacks on journalists will be a priority in the restructured institution.

Make robust reforms to protect privacy and end surveillance of journalists

Earlier this year, press freedom and digital rights groups such as Citizen Lab, R3D: Red en la Defensa de los Derechos Digitales and the Mexican chapter of Article 19 reported that a sophisticated spyware called Pegasus had been used to surveil journalists and activists. Mexico’s press first reported in 2017 that the government had purchased Pegasus from the security consultancy firm NSO Group. Citizen Lab said it was unable to determine whether the government was the direct perpetrator, but that investigations pointed to a group linked to the government. [The government of then-President Enrique Peña Nieto repeatedly denied allegations of spying.]

One of the people affected by the surveillance is Griselda Triana, whose phone was targeted in the days after her husband, the Mexican journalist and CPJ’s 2011 International Press Freedom Award Javier Valdez Cárdenas, was murdered in 2015. Triana said the experience led her to doubt the authorities’ commitment to securing justice for her husband’s killing.

Luis Fernando García, who heads R3D, called for reforms that would restrict authorities’ ability to surveil reporters. “Surveillance in Mexico is conducted without transparency,” he said. “It’s difficult to know the exact magnitude of the problem, because transparency and accountability in the use of surveillance methods in Mexico is a disaster.”

García repeated the call from many press freedom groups that the government prioritize broad reforms that will determine how technology can be used for surveillance, under which criteria, and how authorities will be accountable.

Next steps

It was clear there was broad consensus of what López Obrador’s government should do: strengthen the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists; prioritize the investigation of crimes against journalists through the federal attorney general’s office; reform and regulate government advertisement in line with proposals from civil society groups and the press; and guarantee that surveillance will be a thing of the past.

For any of those steps to become reality though, it is necessary to bring them to the attention of Mexico’s mercurial president. The summit achieved this: López Obrador mentioned the summit during his daily morning press conference on June 19, even if he appeared to interpret it as a criticism of his handling of freedom of expression.