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Good news (for a change) for Mexican journalists

5 January 2007

I had thought about writing on this issue, but I’m glad I waited.  Nobody, in English or Spanish, comes close to writing as clearly on Mexican politics as the Herald’s Kelly Arthur Garrett:

Mexican journalism got a boost this week when a Mexico City judge threw out defamation charges against journalist and author Lydia Cacho.

Press freedom advocates generally praised the decision, and Cacho herself told the media she felt like “a survivor of corruption and political power.”

But as welcome as it may have been for Cacho´s peace of mind, Judge Lorenzo Medina´s ruling was a limited one. It marks a new beginning, not the end, of the Mexican media´s quest to criticize wrongdoing without fear of politically based repercussions, including jail time.

Nor does it end the confrontation between Cacho and the man who filed the defamation charges against her – Puebla textile magnate Kamel Nacif. The Supreme Court will soon take up Cacho´s claim that Nacif and Puebla Gov. Mario Marín conspired to violate her civil rights by subjecting her to mental and physical abuse during her December 2005 arrest.

To Cacho, the official harassment and the defamation accusation were two sides of the same coin – the use of the law by the rich (Nacif) and powerful (Marín) to stifle criticism.

Nacif, who was caught on audio tape arranging Cacho´s arrest with Marín, was identified as close to alleged pedophile Jean Succar Kuri in Cacho´s 2005 book “The Demons of Eden.” He promptly filed libel and defamation charges against the Cancún-based journalist, both criminal offenses.

The libel accusation was soon dropped, while the defamation charge stuck until Judge Medina´s decision Tuesday.

Libel (calumnia) is a false accusation in print; defamation (difamación) is any imputation communicated in bad faith that could harm a person´s reputation, even if it´s true.

But the case against Cacho was never decided on its merits. Instead, Cacho caught a break when the trial was moved from Puebla (where the charges were originally filed) to Quintana Roo (where she lives and works), and then to the capital (where “The Demons of Eden” was published).

Just months earlier, Mexico City legislators had officially decriminalized defamation.

“The judge dismissed the charges because in Mexico City there is no crime of defamation to be charged with,” said Carlos Lauría, who monitors the Americas for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “If it were still in Puebla, she probably would have been prosecuted.”

Therein lies the unresolved issue. Mexico City is the only entity that has decriminalized defamation, meaning any journalist outside the capital who uncovers negative information about anybody runs the risk of criminal charges if it´s printed or aired.

“Fearing that you´ll end up in prison obviously has a chilling effect on a journalist,” Lauría said in a phone interview from New York Thursday. “So you may self-censor and not raise important issues like the sexual exploitation of children that Lydia did raise.”

Free-press activists want defa- mation and libel to be civil rather than criminal offenses, with economic penalties rather than prison sentences, and a reasonable burden of proof on the plaintiff. Otherwise, they say, the law is a weapon against the press.

“Current cases of abuse against journalists, such as the Cacho case, are clear examples of how the law is being applied,” Sen. Carlos Sotelo said. “Far from protecting a person´s honor, it´s used to silence critical discussion.”

Sotelo, a member of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), was speaking in support of legislation that would decriminalize libel and defamation nationwide. The bill has been passed by the Chamber of Deputies and sent to the Senate. Its future is uncertain.

“We´d like to see President Calderón use the power of his office and work with Congress to expedite this reform,” said Lauría. “This bill needs to be approved promptly so journalists will no longer face the threat of jail for what they write.” © 2007 Copyright El Universal-El Universal Online

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