Mexico: Prosecution and Violence Against Twitter Users Must Stop
21 Sep 2011
Freedom of the press in Mexico has dangerously deteriorated over the past year, with regular reports of journalists being killed, and often without proper investigations being conducted into their deaths. This climate of fear and distrust of the authorities has led many Mexican citizens to become increasingly reliant on social media as a source of news. Hashtags have become an important sorting mechanism, and are even considered to be ad hoc news services.
However, this newsgathering medium has come under an intense international media spotlight when on, 25 August 2011, two social media users, Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola and Gilberto Martinez Vera, were arrested and charged with terrorism for – what appears was – disseminating false information on their Twitter accounts.
ARTICLE 19 finds these charges to be in clear breach of international law standards on the protection of freedom of expression. ARTICLE 19 is also alarmed at the report that on 15 September 2011, two mutilated bodies were found in Nuevo Laredo, with a note threatening reprisals for users of specific social media websites - indicating that social media users are now being targeted by organized crime.
How did a tweet end in terrorism charges?
Against this background, on 25 August 2011, @gilius_22 tweeted a message using the #verfollow hashtag on his Twitter account. He claimed that five children had been kidnapped at a local school in Veracruz. The tweet, allegedly, read as follows:
“#verfollow I confirm that in the school ‘Jorge Arroyo’ in the Carranza neighborhood 5 kids were kidnapped, armed group, panic in the zone.”
The message was re-tweeted by a number of people, one of whom was @VerFollow, a popular Twitter account with more than 5,000 followers that was created to report on the violence in the city. The news rapidly spread on other social media, with different versions being reported, including that one of the drug cartels was threatening to kill a child for each cartel member killed. Several other twitter users also reported other school incidents, including that helicopters were flying at low altitude.
The Governor of Veracruz promptly responded by tweeting a message dismissing the rumour. However, it came too late to avert the rapid spread of panic and chaos across the city, with scores of parents rushing to remove their children from school and several schools temporarily closing. The governor subsequently tweeted that there would be legal consequences for those who had spread the rumours and a statement was later issued on his website listing sixteen Twitter accounts involved in the incident.
Shortly thereafter, Bravo Pagola and Martínez Vera were accused of disturbing the peace and spreading fear among fellow citizens of Veracruz by disseminating false information on social networks. Martinez Vera, a schoolteacher, tweeted from @gilius_22 Twitter account; Bravo Pagola, a local journalists re-tweeted Martinez’s original posts from her Twitter account (@maruchibravo).
Martinez and Bravo were charged with terrorism and sabotage offences under Article 311 of the Veracruz state Criminal Code. The crime of “terrorism” under Article 311 prohibits “using explosives, toxic substances, firearms, fire, flood, or any other means against the people, public property or services to produce alarm, fear, or terror in the population or group thereof; to disturb the public peace; or to undermine the authority of the state or to pressure it to act, is punishable by three to thirty years in prison, a fine of up to seven hundred and fifty times the minimum wage, and suspension of political rights up to five years."
Why Terrorist charges against Twitter users violate freedom of expression:
ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned that the Twitter users in this case may be convicted of terrorism offences and be sentenced for up to 30 years imprisonment for disseminating what turned out to be false information on Twitter. ARTICLE 19 argues that the charges against Martinez and Bravo should be dropped immediately for the following reasons:
- ARTICLE 19 finds the definition of the crime of terrorism in Article 311 of the Veracruz Criminal Code to be vague and overbroad and that it fails to meet the requirements of international standards.
- Apart from the narrow definition of criminal offences of “terrorism”, international standards also require that severe restrictions on freedom of expression should be employed only if they are truly “necessary.”
- ARTICLE 19 also reminds the Veracruz authorities that using criminal law - especially terrorist offences - to punish those who disseminate false information, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is contrary to international standards for the protection of freedom of expression
Social media in Mexico: A Snapshot
ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly expressed concern about the impact of the ongoing drug cartel-related violence on freedom of expression in Mexico, which has had a chilling effect on national and local media. Some people even talk about the emergence of “narco-censorship”, with criminal organizations threatening local newspapers with reprisals for reporting on drug-related crimes and other violent events. Journalists and publishers who cover drug wars are frequently killed and harassed and even the largest media houses frequently report incidents of serious threats and violent attacks against them because of their reporting.
The reliance on social media is prevalent in the state of Veracruz, which has a problematic record on protecting freedom of expression, including impunity for those who commit violence against journalists. For example, two newspaper journalists disappeared in the Veracruz state in the course of a year - Evaristo Ortega Zárate, editor of Espacio on 20 April 2010 Noel López Olguín, a journalist, on 8 March 2011. Moreover, on 20 June 2011, Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco, a newspaper columnist known for writing about corruption and drug violence, was shot, together with his wife and son, in the city of Veracruz.
A Taste of Things to Come?
Social media users reporting or commenting on drug cartels are not immune from violent reprisals. ARTICLE 19 notes with great concern that on 15 September 2011, the mutilated bodies of a man and a woman, bound and displaying signs of torture, were found hanging from a pedestrian bridge in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, bordering Veracruz. The corpses had a note attached, allegedly stating:
“This will happen to all the Internet snitches (Frontera al Rojo Vivo, Blog Del Narco, or Denuncia Ciudadano). Be warned, we’ve got our eye on you. Signed, Z.”
The sites and blog mentioned in this note are sites that denounce drug cartel activities and that report on violence. The ‘z’ signature is a reference to the Zetas drug cartel, a group known for its use of extreme violence against law enforcement officials, innocent citizens, informants, and rival drug gangs. The identity of the bodies has not yet been confirmed.
Although bloggers have been targeted in Mexico in the past, this is the first reported case of the violence related to users of social media. ARTICLE 19 believes that the case of the Nuevo Laredo killing must be taken extremely seriously in the light of the general climate of violence against journalists working for traditional media, and because of the level of impunity for those committing violations.
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