Joel Simon on Lydia: perils of journalism

Joel Simon is executive director of CPJ (Comittee to protect jornalists).
Words in Amnisty International Event, School of Law. New York University. April 5, 2007

We’re heard a lot already about Lydia as a human rights defender and an advocate for women’s rights. But Lydia is also an outstanding journalist – a columnist for various publications and the author of a groundbreaking book on the child prostitution in Mexico.
It is in this capacity that we at the Committee to Protect Journalists came to know Lydia. We’ve been inspired by her unstinting commitment to tell this painful and tragic story, despite physical threats and legal prosecution.
Now, what most know about the Mexican press is that journalists daily confront the threat of violence. This is true on the U.S./Mexico boarder, particularly in the last three years as the war between powerful drug cartels has intensified.
CPJ research shows that six journalists had been murdered in direct reprisal for their work since 2000; we are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the slayings of 10 other journalists during that period to determine if their deaths are work-related. Three journalists have also disappeared since 2005. Two of them were covering crime stories.
Violence and fear have had a devastating effect on the press, as reporters who cover crime and drug trafficking haven increasingly resort to self-censorship. Mexico’s justice system –overburdened and dysfunctional-, has failed to bring an end to this cycle of violence and appears far from solving any of the recent murders.
Ironically, the Mexican criminal justice system, which is incapable of prosecuting the killers of journalists, often moves with alacrity when journalists themselves are the victims of punitive lawsuits. This was certainly true in Lydia’s case.
In December 2005, Lydia was the victim of what I call a judicial kidnapping. Agents from the State of Puebla in central Mexico arrested her in Cancun, and drove her 20 hours to Puebla where she was jailed on criminal defamation charges after a local businessman filed charges in response to accusations made in her book on child prostitution. Later, allegations of a criminal conspiracy to assault Lydia in prison emerged – allegations which are still being investigated.
There was, as you know, widespread outrage and revulsion at the charges brought against Lydia, and we at CPJ are pround of our role in bringing these abuses of power to light. More broadly, Lydia’s case highlighted the pressure that Mexican journalists continue to face from the application of outdated criminal defamation laws.
In early March, and inspired in Lydia’s case, the Mexican Senate passed federal legislation decriminalizing defamation, libel, and slander. If signed by the president, journalists would no longer face prison sentences at the federal level for defamation, libel, and slander. The reforms would make defamation, libel, and slander civil offenses.
The reforms would not offer complete protection from criminal defamation complaints because many states continue to carry criminal libel laws on their books. In most Mexican states, defamation, libel, and slander are still punishable by prison sentences of up to four years. CPJ has urged state governments to follow the lead of the Mexican senate, decriminalize press laws, and ensure that journalists throughout the country can work without the fear of legal prosecution
Meanwhile, CPJ continues to closely monitored Lydia’s case and to push for an investigation into a possible criminal conspiracy to assault and imprison her.
Lydia is a crusader on many fronts – for the rights of women, for human rights in general. But she’s also made a lasting contribution to Mexican journalism, not only through her groundbreaking investigative work and fearless denunciations. Her case has also pushed Mexico to make necessary legal reforms, which could open the door for greater protections for journalists in Mexico and throughout Latin America. As we honor Lydia with this prestigious award, I would also call on the Mexican government to honor her by finally repealing criminal libel at the state and federal level so that mexican journalists are no longer subject to judicial harassment and persecution.

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