"I’m a journalist, not a criminal:" Mexican organization launches project against judicial harassment of journalists

Although Mexico is known as one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists, the threat to media professionals in the country is not just physical. In many cases, the enemies of freedom of expression and of the press resort not to arms, but to the courts, in an attempt to silence journalistic coverage that goes against their interests.

The project "Soy Periodista, No Criminal" (I’m a journalist, not a criminal) from Mexican organization CIC Propuesta Cívica, seeks to give visibility to criminalization and judicial harassment of journalists as a form of aggression against freedom of expression in the country.

The organization provides legal representation to threatened human rights defenders and journalists in Mexico. Vanessa Carrillo, research coordinator for CIC Propuesta Cívica, told the Knight Center that since 2015, the organization has observed an increase in cases in which it identifies “the improper use of the law to attack and hinder journalistic activity, mainly in contexts where women and men journalists were covering electoral campaigns, social protests or investigating acts of corruption.”

“Through lawsuits for moral damages or accusations for crimes of vote buying; Illegal deprivation of freedom; riot; alleged links to organized crime or attacks on order or public peace; women and men journalists were subjected to long and exhausting legal proceedings whose sanctions range from the payment of exorbitant fines to prison,” Carrillo said.

On the project’s page, the organization has posted videos with stories from some journalists it supported who were being criminalized or prosecuted for doing their jobs. Roxana Romero García is one of the journalists highlighted. She worked as a reporter for the newspaper Vanguardia in Saltillo, state of Coahuila, when in February 2016 she published an investigation into alleged irregularities in the approval of former governor Humberto Moreira’s pension after he worked in the state’s Education sector.

According to CIC Propuesta Cívica, Moreira did not use his right of reply, but sued Romero García and the newspaper asking for compensation for moral damages. In the video, the journalist said that she was afraid and that she came to think that when the process was over, she would stop working as a reporter.

“But then I began to reflect and I said: ‘yes, he is suing me, it is for something, it is because I did my job well, because he did not like it.’ From there, I totally changed my vision of journalism, my plans, the plans that I had for myself, from that suit I fell in love with journalism, and investigative journalism,” she said.

Carrillo said the case is still in court.

In another case, journalists Claudia García Fregoso and Teresa Cárdenas García were accused of vote buying after being detained by municipal police while covering an election in Ixtapaluca, in the state of Mexico, in June 2015. They said that they witnessed aggressions against women occurring down an avenue and were beaten and detained while finding out what was happening. Upon their release, they were informed that they had been accused with the crime of vote-buying, penalized by up to three years in prison. According to Carrillo, the case was not pursued. However, the question of who had the jurisdiction to grant the warrants for detention is still being decided.

Carrillo said CIC Propuesta Cívica points out “the high economic, physical and emotional cost involved in going through this type of process, a situation that is complicated by the labor and salary conditions of journalists that don’t permit them to hire professional services. The legal defense of journalists requires specialized people, since they can not be carried out through simple logics of law.”

The project page also highlights campaigns of defamation and stigmatization against journalists as threats to freedom of expression, for trying to prevent professionals from doing their jobs. More recently, social networks have become grounds for the persecution of journalists, with the use of bots, trolls and memes aimed at harming the public image of professionals.

In addition to the videos and the site, CIC Propuesta Cívica has published a digital book that brings journalists' stories, articles on the problem and recommendations to Mexican authorities based on what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommends on this issue.

One of the main demands is the decriminalization of crimes against honor, a legal figure including accusations of defamation, calumnia and injuria. According to the organization, the criminalization of crimes against honor continues in force in 10 states of the country.

Click here to view more videos from the #SoyPeriodistaNoCriminal campaign.