Sep 29, 2011

A Mexican View: Authoritarian Despair

A column by John Ackerman on the passage of a law in the state of Veracruz punishing the use of social media to spread information if it proves to be false and creates public alarm and disorder. This law was a reaction to the so-called "Twitter Terroists."  Ackerman is a researcher in the Institute for Judicial Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and editorial director of the Mexican Law Review. 
Translated by AMB. Original in Spanish

MEXICO CITY, Proceso. The regime reacts in a desperate manner to its obvious failure in achieving the goal of controlling the violence and social unrest that runs through the country. Instead of solving the underlying problems, daily it deepens its repressive and propagandistic strategy. Recall that six months ago, on March 24, more than 50 media outlets signed an agreement for the coverage of violence within the framework of the so-called Mexico Initiative. The pact proposed "to standardize" propagandistic journalism, to give a feeling of greater security to the population and to bolster the legitimacy of the government of Felipe Calderón and the entire political class.

That agreement has failed miserably. Today, official data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGi) show that Mexican feel more insecure and less confident than ever about government institutions. 69.5% of people over 18 feel unsafe in their state, four percentage points higher than last year. In the same period, confidence in the Navy fell eight points to reach 47% in the Army, seven points to 46%, and the Federal Police, nearly 10 points, to close at just 17%. These opinions are based on facts, since the same study shows that the number of common law offenses rose by a whopping 90% between 2009 and 2010, 12 to 23 million. Of crimes in 2010, only 12% were reported by victims, and 8% are being investigated by the authorities.

The reality of the political crisis has laid bare the fiction of Mexico Initiative. The fire at the Casino Royale has uncovered a cesspool of corruption and complicity within the PAN political class in Monterrey. Kidnappings and extortion against teachers in Acapulco have shown the total failure of the governments of the PRD regarding its intention to conduct a real political and institutional transition. The explosion of violence and the blatant appropriation of public space by criminals in states like Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila and Mexico reveal the loss of governability in the main bastions of the old party-state.

Faced with few results from the "Agreement" of the national media, Calderon is now seeking to move the smoke screen to the north. The president's presentation last Thursday in New York on the television program The Royal Tour, where he served as a tour guide, was not a genuine effort to promote investment and travel to our country, but another attempt to "shield" the president's image from the increasingly frequent criticism for his administration. The basic objective is to shore up the eventual candidate of the PAN who will face the presidential elections next year.

But in recent weeks, the effort to control the flow of information has taken a truly macabre twist. Three weeks ago the governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, unjustly imprisoned journalist Jesus Maria Bravo and teacher Gilberto Martinez for forwarding information on social networks that proved false regarding the commission of acts of violence in some primary schools in Veracruz. (My analysis here: While the governor has “pardoned” them for a crime they never committed, he has simultaneously pushed through the state legislature a true legal aberration that penalizes not only the freedom of expression but also fear and social solidarity.

On Tuesday September 20 an amendment to Penal Code of Veracruz was published in the Official Gazette of the state to include the new crime of "disturbing public order". Whoever, "by any means, falsely claims the existence of explosive devices or of assaults with firearms, or toxic chemicals that can cause health damage, thereby causing disruption of public order, shall be liable to imprisonment one to four years and a fine of 500 to a thousand days of minimum wage, taking into account the alarm or disturbance actually produced.”

This amendment violates all international treaties and international standards on freedom of expression as it punishes communication" any means, " without specification, and does not require the existence of" premeditated” or antisocial intent. So today in Veracruz any housewife who warns her neighbor to be careful when going to market because she heard gunshots at the corner, although this has not happened, can be apprehended and sent to jail for four years. In contrast, the real criminals are allowed to place 35 bodies in public, calmly and in broad daylight in the middle of one of the busiest and most touristic areas of the city.
This crude and insulting contradiction is the perfect example of the institutional crisis that exists in Mexico today. Our leaders are more concerned with silencing the public and social criticism than stopping the violence and corruption.

Fortunately, there are still some legal avenues to overturn the “Law Duarte”. The national ombudsman, Raul Plascencia, should immediately file a motion of unconstitutionality before the Supreme Court. (Here the application made ​​by two prominent activists: Attorney General Marisela Morales should also do the same. Otherwise, before national and international public opinion, she will prove herself to be a direct accomplice of repression led by Duarte.

An omission in this matter by the Attorney General would also give the green light to the possible adoption of similar reforms in other states and even at the federal level. For example, the Congress of Tabasco is now in the process of preparing a law that would penalize “social alarm” in the Veracruz manner. What is in play here is no more nor less than our very own democratic life.

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