press freedom

Ecuador is trying to shut down one of its main press freedom groups

Ecuador has announced a move to shut down the Andean Foundation for the Social Observation and Study of Media, better known as Fundamedios, the country’s main organization dedicated to monitoring threats to freedom of expression. The National Communications Secretariat (Secom) alleges that the group has not complied with a law requiring civil society organizations to remain politically neutral.

In a 70-page letter to Fundamedios, Secom claimed the group had “disseminated messages, alerts and essays with indisputable political overtones.” Fundamedios representatives and other free-speech advocates, however, criticized the government’s action, which they say points to a broader campaign to silence critical voices.

Fundamedios responded by calling Secom’s decision “unconstitutional and illegal.” The group has also formally appealed the measure. “Our reaction is that this is a process that, legally and from a perspective of logic and rationality, has neither head nor tail,” Fundamedios executive director César Ricuarte told local media.

The government’s move has sparked concern from human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). The US State Department also announced that it was “very concerned about the increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of association in Ecuador.”

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has previously claimed that Fundamedios is part of a “smear campaign” against his administration, citing the group’s work as an example of US “interventionism” in the country. Other critics of Fundamedios have pointed out that the organization has received funding from the US Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy.

But in an email the watchdog group Freedom House called these criticisms “an unsubstantiated justification for [Correa’s] broader campaign to silence opinions that he disagrees with.” The organization reported earlier this year that Ecuador has experienced a major decline in press freedom since 2010, and that Correa’s administration has “continually disparaged and harassed critical media outlets and journalists, creating an environment of aggression toward the media sector and the journalistic profession.”

Official documents recently obtained by The Guardian showed that Ecuador’s spy service engaged in a “pattern of targeting Correa’s intellectual and political opponents in the media, indigenous movements and parliament.” And earlier this year British comedian John Oliver ignited a public spat with Correa after he lampooned the president’s thin-skinned attitude toward criticism, including his creation of a “troll army” to fight back against online detractors.

During the recent controversy, media outlets tied to the Ecuadoran government incorrectly reported that the National Journalists Federation (Fenape) supported the move to shut down Fundamedios. But the reports were based on false social media posts and statements from imposters claiming to represent Fenape.

In a public statement, Fenape condemned the attempts to appropriate its name, and voiced its support for Fundamedios. “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right and the issue of this decision by Secom violates the very existence of this right,” said the group’s president Susana Piedra.

Correa’s government has faced mass protests in recent weeks and months over issues including his administration’s increasing restrictions on free speech, his attempt to extend his term in office, and his unpopular economic and environmental policies. Correa has previously blamed U.S. intelligence services for provoking the protests. Demonstrators have accused police of using excessive force.

Despite Correa’s poor record on press freedom issues, his administration has made some efforts to brand itself as a defender of free speech. Since 2012, Ecuador has provided asylum in its London embassy to WikiLeaks founder and government transparency advocate Julian Assange. In 2013 – the same year a controversial communications law came into effect – Correa’s government hosted an “Internet freedom forum” that Buzzfeed reported was “attended by luminaries of the global transparency community associated with WikiLeaks and other groups.”

However, many observers say the decision to dissolve Fundamedios is politically motivated, and represents a pattern of intimidation against dissenting voices. “Not content with persecuting, harassing, fining, and verbally abusing critics in the privately owned press, the Ecuadoran government is now threatening to dissolve the leading press freedom organization,” said CPJ Americas Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría in a statement.

Secom head Fernando Alvarado told CPJ he would not comment on the case before its final resolution. President Correa has not commented publicly on the case, but in recent days he has posted several Twitter messages denouncing some elements of the press, as well as “violent minorities” he claims are seeking to undermine his government.

In response to a request for comment, the Ecuadoran embassy in the United States provided a statement from Secom acknowledging Fundamedios’ “legitimate right to explanation and justification of its actions,” and stating that the agency “will issue its resolution” regarding Fundamedios’ appeal “under the current legal system and in strict support for the Rule of Law.”

The US Must Address Its Role in Mexico’s Human Rights Crisis

…Given the deluge of credible reports about the involvement of Mexican forces in numerous massacres and mass disappearances in recent months and years – and even more disturbing, the efforts of government officials to impede proper investigations and critical, investigative journalism – the United States should keep its international obligations in mind, and perhaps more importantly, it should follow its own laws and demand Mexico take serious measures to prevent and prosecute such abuses before it receives further US assistance.

Read this piece in its entirety at Truthout.

Pros and cons of Mexico’s telecom reform

On 14 July 2014, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law a new set of telecommunications reforms. While the legislation takes important steps forward in a number of areas, some activists and non-governmental organizations are expressing concern over certain provisions…

Read this piece in its entirety at Southern Pulse.

Mexico: A flurry of new reports highlight persistent security, free speech problems

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 17 March to 22 March 2014.

A draft report released this week by Christof Heyns, special rapporteur for the United Nations on Extrajudicial Executions, concluded that Mexico has experienced “numerous extrajudicial executions by the armed forces and the cartels, often without any accountability” as a result of the militarization of the drug war. The report warned that “soldiers who perform police duties have a hard time renouncing the military paradigm…[U]sually the way they have been trained makes them unfit to maintain public order. The main objective of a military force is to subdue the enemy by taking advantage of their superior strength, while the human rights approach only considers the use of force as the last resort.”

The watchdog group Amnesty International called on Mexico to address “ongoing patterns of disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions as well as routine attacks on men and women defending human rights, journalists and migrants.” Among the 176 recommendations made by the United Nations Human Rights Council to the Mexican government is the cessation of “arraigo” detention, a form of pre-charge detention where a suspect can be held for up to 80 days without being brought before a judge.

The international press-freedom organization Article 19 claimed in a new report that public officials accounted for 60 percent of the 330 acts of aggression against journalists and media outlets documented in Mexico last year. Impunity for attacks on the media is rampant in Mexico. In the eight years since its inception, despite an annual budget of more than 30 million pesos ($8.2 million), the government’s “office of the special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression” has yet to secure a single conviction. Attacks against journalists in Mexico skyrocketed by 59% last year. The number of attacks rose from 207 in 2012 to 330 in 2013, nearly 90% of which were against individuals. Article 19 said 2013 was the most dangerous year for journalists in the country since 2007, estimating that the media face an act of aggression every 26.5 hours. The group also said public officials were behind the majority of the attacks.

Journalists investigating the apparent murder of one of their colleagues, Gregorio Jimenez, claim that they have had to take the investigation into their own hands because Mexican authorities have failed to act on evidence that Jiminez’s killing was related to his reporting, which had linked a powerful Veracruz businesswoman to an alleged kidnapping ring.

Unidentified suspects broke into the Mexico City home of Dario Ramirez, regional director of Article 19. The burglars stole documents and computers just two days before Article 19 presents its annual report on violence against journalists and the news media. Ramirez and his colleagues had received death threats and reported a number of other security incidents to Mexican authorities over the past year. Last week, Balbina Flores Martínez, a correspondent from international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, was threatened by someone claiming to be Omar Treviño, leader of the Zetas cartel.

Headlines

The United States is seeking to extradite the former governor of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Tomas Yarrington, for trial on charges of racketeering, money laundering, and conspiracy to import narcotics. According to the indictment, Yarrington used the bribe money to purchase a luxury condo in Texas and illegally used Mexican public funds to buy a private jet and other property. Fernando Alejandro Cano Martinez, the owner of Mexican construction firm, is listed as co-defendant on some of the charges. Yarrington is not currently in custody and the extradition request still has to be approved by a Mexican judge.

Former intelligence chief Monte Alejandro Rubido will replace Manuel Mondragon as the new chairman of Mexico’s National Security Commission, the country’s top anti-crime post. Rubido also served as head of the Cisen intelligence agency (a sort of Mexican NSA) and as deputy public safety secretary. Manuel Mondragon will “withdraw from the operational field and become part of strategic planning tasks” according to Government Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.

Mexican police arrested Manuel Plancarte Gaspar, nephew of Knights Templar kingpin Enrique Plancarte Solis. He is “suspected of killing several minors to extract their vital organs for sale.” While it is possible that some Mexican cartels have expanded their operations to include organ trafficking, the evidence is thin. Speculation about organ-trafficking by criminals has a long history, but it often turn out to be rumors propagated to sow anti-Americanism or fear of criminal groups.

According to the Attorney General’s office, Mexican authorities freed five kidnapping victims and arrested 10 suspects in three separate raids in the central state of Mexico.

Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, a prominent leader of an autodefensa in Michoacan, strongly criticized the government for arresting Hipolito Mora, the leader of another autodefensa.

To Watch

Spanish police claim that Mexican cartels, namely Sinaloa, Los Zetas and the Knights Templar, have established a presence in the European country, possibly attempting to challenge Colombian criminal operations that have historically dominated the country’s cocaine trade. One reason Mexican groups are moving in may be that cocaine consumption in the United States has been falling, while in Europe consumption is on the rise and the drug sells for a higher price. The increasing fragmentation of Colombian organizations could provide an opportunity for Mexican groups to move in, but both they and the Colombians will also face competition from European organizations looking to diversify and globalize. As InSight Crime concludes, ” the future of drug trafficking in Spain is more likely to involve decentralized and fluid transnational networks, within which Mexicans, Colombians and Europeans all have a role to play.”

Transnational criminal networks in Latin America make more than $3 million per week on the illegal cell phone trade, according to a report from Interpol.

Extra

Popular Science has an excellent long read on the fascinating story of Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada, the man who set up a massive secret radio network for the Zetas cartel.

Vice took a deeper look at the Knights Templar cartel’s involvement in the iron ore trade, which we reported last week. According to the article, “what the gang now earns from illegal mining and mineral smuggling makes its illegal drug profits look like chump change.”

Truthout highlighted the story of Yakiri Rubi Rubio, a 20-year-old Mexico City woman who was recently incarcerated for killing a man who she alleges kidnapped, raped and attempted to murder her.