Digital crossfire

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Ricardo Gonzalez

12 Mar 2012


As the pattern of violence against journalists and traditional media consolidates across Mexico, due the failure of the state in providing protection remedies, social media and other internet-based platforms offer an alternative to avoid (self-)censorship and procure the already fragile free flow of information, ideas and opinions.  Even though it is not a definitive indicator of the actual impact of such technologies in societies, it is important to consider that only one third of the population of Mexico has access to a computer connected to the internet. 

Citizens are constantly exposed to different forms of violence, which, added to “information black holes”, present in many regions, promotes the fear of being kidnapped or getting caught in a cross fire between organised crime and authorities.  Some are using Twitter to warn of road blocks, by organised crime, and gun fights taking place in their respective cities. Facebook users are trying to find disappeared relatives by disseminating information online . Blogs such as “Blog del Narco”, “Mundo Narco” and “Policiaca”, are publishing information impossible to find in the traditional media, let alone in the authorities' press releases. At the same time, the use of ICTs by an increasing number of concerned citizens to speak out against corruption, violence and other public interest issues is presenting a new path for citizen participation in the public debate.

Censorship is not a new challenge, the internet and ICTs are now also the scenarios of the ancient temptation of those in power. It is the sum of old and new obstacles for the full realisation of the right to freedom of expression. On one hand the criminal groups are trying to expand their control of information through the attacks to the media and controlling the digital sphere. Meanwhile, the Mexican authorities continue to see the media as an extension of their personal interests and in many cases, using bogus lawsuits and even recurring assaults against those investigating corruption cases. Once again the public's right to be informed of the society is cut in the middle of a crossfire.

Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro

Maria was a journalist working for Primera Hora and in her spare time collaborated  with “Nuevo Laredo en Vivo”, a web-based chat room were users share information on public security issues. Her decapitated body was found on September 24th in the streets of Laredo, Tamaulipas (northeast) one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. A message was found on the crime scene signed by an alleged criminal group warning the social media user not to disclose any type of information regarding their activities. The case remains in complete impunity.

DDoS attacks against independent media

Riodoce is one of the few local weekly’s in Mexico dedicated to investigate drug trafficking and drug related violence in Culiacan, Sinaloa (northeast). They were recently awarded with the Maria Moors Cabot Prize. On November of 2011, Riodoce released information regarding the legal process faced by one of the sons of a drug trafficker and the alleged support provided by a political group. Their site was targeted for almost a week until their host decided to terminate the contract. Riodoce´s site remained offline for almost two weeks. During 2011, ARTICLE19 documented 3 cyber-attacks against the websites of independent media.

A number of community radios, including Radio Ñomndaa of the Amusgo people in Guerrero (southeast), denounced being subject to the same types of attacks that block their website and forbid them to reach a wider audience, including the migrant Amusgo in other countries.     

Intrusive legal framework 

Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola and Gilberto Martinez Vera were two social network users that were arrested and freed after one month under the charge of terrorism back in August 2011, in Veracruz (east). Their only crime was to disseminate false information through Twitter of gunfire in a school. After this case the local Congress of Veracruz passed an amendment to the Criminal Code to punish the dissemination of rumors or false information by any means, including social networks with  jail-time. This is actually a pending case to be ruled on by the Supreme Court as an attempt to limit freedom of expression.  Other local congresses are currently discussing following the path of ruling and limiting ICTs social networks.

Last week Congress at the federal level passed a surveillance legislation that will grant the police warrantless access to real-time user location data. The bill was adopted almost unanimously with 315 votes in favor, 6 against, and 7 abstentions. It is just left to the President's approval. The combination of these regulations, real-time geo-localisation of mobile phone users and the criminalisation of spreading of rumors or misinformation is actually deepening the chilling effect of the use of ICT´s and freedom of expression in general. 

*Written with Omar Rabago


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