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In landmark decision, Senate says attacks on journalists to be federal crimes

IFEX members say the legislation is only the first step in confronting Mexico's near 90 percent impunity rate for journalists' murders. José Armando Rodrígues Carreón, above, was killed with impunity in 2008
IFEX members say the legislation is only the first step in confronting Mexico's near 90 percent impunity rate for journalists' murders. José Armando Rodrígues Carreón, above, was killed with impunity in 2008

Allan De Los Angeles

The Mexican Senate has finally approved a constitutional amendment that will enable federal authorities to investigate and prosecute certain attacks on the press and calls on authorities to end the widespread impunity for crimes against journalists, report ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).

"This is a legislative milestone that has been years in the making," said CPJ executive director Joel Simon. "We congratulate the Mexican Senate and President [Felipe] Calderón on this achievement. At the same time, we note that it is only one step in the fight against impunity, a fight that will not be won until the killers of journalists are tried and sentenced."

The constitutional amendment passed on 13 March allows federal authorities to investigate and punish any crime against "journalists, people or outlets that affects, limits, or impinges upon the right to information and freedom of expression and the press."

"While this reform has been called the federalisation of press crimes, we feel this is misleading because attacks on the press will not be solely treated by federal departments," said ARTICLE 19.

The legislation grants senior levels of the national government certain powers to prosecute anti-press crimes, avoiding such cases being mishandled by the more corrupt and less effective state law enforcement officials.

According to ARTICLE 19, since 2000, 66 journalists have been killed and 13 have gone missing. Most of their cases have generally gone unprosecuted.

But the reform still has a long way to go, says ARTICLE 19. The changes won't take effect unless they are approved by at least 17 of Mexico's 31 state legislatures and are then signed by the President.

"There will be some resistance in some states, but we expect that in about two months half will approve it, "the Senate president, Sen. José González Morfín, told CPJ.

Plus, to be enforceable, legislation is required to indicate under which circumstances the federal government will take over cases from the state authorities. Federal procedural and criminal codes as well as the Judiciary Act may also need modifying - a process that requires quick collaboration between the Senate and lower house, say ARTICLE 19 and CPJ.

ARTICLE 19 is concerned, too, that the definition of "journalists, people or outlets" is not clearly defined, and bloggers and social media critics, who have met grisly deaths recently for reporting on the drug wars, may be excluded.

ARTICLE 19 and CPJ also note that the amendment does not in itself reform or strengthen the existing special federal prosecutor office, which investigates the few crimes against freedom of expression that are already classified as federal offences.

Importantly, the special prosecutor Laura Borbolla is new to the position, but the office she has inherited has not solved a single journalist murder case.

Calderón has been promising IFEX members that he would implement the measure since he took office in December 2006, but until recently, little movement has been made. IAPA says it has been pushing for anti-press crimes to be a federal offence since 1997, and has sent more than 20 delegations to meet with presidents since then.

"It's not clear exactly what changed, but diplomats speculated that Calderón may have pressed the matter for the sake of his reputation," said CPJ.

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