Mexican press freedom dispute erupts as Amlo attacks US and domestic critics

A growing row over press freedom has engulfed Mexico after the country’s nationalist president maligned a routine US human rights report which highlighted his government’s failure to protect journalists – and the behaviour of some officials against media members.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly called Amlo, condemned Mexico’s mention in the state department’s annual human rights report as an unwelcome intervention in Mexican matters.

But Amlo also singled out press freedom group Article 19, which was cited as a source, in an outburst reflecting his disdain for civil society groups.

“They’re supported by foreigners. And all the people who are associated with Article 19 belong to the conservative movement, which is against us,” Amlo alleged on Wednesday, once again labeling his supposed opponents “conservative” despite his own conservative leanings on social and economic issues.

“We’re not meddling by opining on human rights violations in the United States. We’re respectful,” said Amlo, referring to his professed foreign policy of non-intervention. “We can’t opine on what happens in another country so why is the US government opining on questions that are purely Mexican matters?”

A government spokesman subsequently tweeted Article 19’s sources of financing, while supporters and pro-government media even accused the group of promoting a coup.

“Financed by the US, Article 19 nourishes a coup against Mexico,” blared the front page of La Jornada newspaper on Thursday.

The attacks on Article 19 set off a social media firestorm in a country considered one of the most dangerous for journalists: 137 Mexican journalists have been murdered for their work since 2000, including 17 killed since Amlo took office in 2018.

The hostile response was consistent with the president’s longstanding practice of publicly attacking critical media coverage, described by Article 19 in its most recent annual report on Mexico.

“Dynamics persists of stigmatising the press, censorship, violation of human rights and the weakening or abandonment of [government] institutions created as a counterweight to power,” the report said.

“Article 19 is acting like it would with any other government,” said Javier Garza, a journalist and editor in the northern city of Torreón. “[But] Amlo has to have an enemy. Today it’s Article 19.”

Amlo, who presents his administration as morally superior to his predecessors’ governments, has often wondered aloud why the media would scrutinise his administration.

Much as Donald Trump’s administration cited “alternative facts”, the Mexican president often responds to unfavourable stories with the line: “I have other figures.”

Meanwhile, Amlo has taken no meaningful steps to stop violence against journalists said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“What they’ve added is a hostile and confrontational attitude vis-a-vis media, journalists and civil society organizations such as Article 19,” he added. “Amlo distracts from his own failures to combat impunity and violence by attacking anyone critical of his government. He is fully aware of the effect such attacks have: online intimidation, trolling, harassment and even threats by people who support him.”

The president took special exception to a passage in the US report mentioning the director of the state news agency Notimex, Sanjuana Martínez.

It said she “ordered journalists to eliminate or not publish content about certain government institutions and officials,” citing a report by Article 19, Signa Lab and Aristegui Noticias. The investigation found evidence of a group “in which directors, sent by the director [Martínez] ordered workers to publish messages on Twitter and utilize hashtags against journalists and ex-employees”.

Martínez accused Article 19 of orchestrating a “lynching” and defaming her. Ironically, Article 19 previously provided legal assistance to Martínez during a defamation suit against her.

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