MEXICO CITY — The Mexican Senate Tuesday approved a constitutional amendment that would make attacks on journalists a federal crime, responding to growing pressure on news gatherers in a country where 48 journalists have been slain or have disappeared under suspicious circumstances in the last five years.
Free press advocates hailed the action as crucial to protecting the flow of information in a country where no one in recent years has been convicted of attacks against reporters. That air of impunity has turned some parts of the country into virtual news black holes as journalists, fearing for their lives, refuse to report on organized crime and violence.
The measure, which senators approved 95-0, was passed four months ago by the Mexican Congress' lower chamber. Now, more than half of Mexico's state legislatures must endorse it before it becomes part of the country's constitution.
"This is a legislative milestone that has been years in the making," Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group that lobbied for its passage, said in a written statement.
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Since President Felipe Calderon came to office in late 2006, homicide rates have soared from organized crime and deployment of federal police and army troops to fight gangs. So did threats and slayings of journalists and armed attacks on newsrooms.
A special prosecutor appointed in 2010 to investigate crimes against journalists, Gustavo Salas Chavez, brought charges in 25 cases but failed to win a single conviction. Press advocates criticized him for not providing adequate protection to reporters who received threats despite having a budget to do so.
On Feb. 14, Laura Borbolla Moreno, a career prosecutor, replaced Salas.
The majority of threats against journalists appear to come from local and state officials and law enforcement authorities, many with links to organized crime.
Since state courts generally handle murder cases, those behind threats against journalists easily thwarted investigations, said Cynthia Cardenas, legal adviser in Mexico to Article 19, a London-based group that promotes freedom of expression.
Only a month or so ago, it looked like the amendment to let federal authorities take over prosecution of crimes against the media had fallen into limbo. What gave it impetus now is unclear, but some advocates said Calderon realized failure to win passage could harm his legacy.
"The political cost of not approving a law to protect journalists is very high, and this is the reason the measure is moving forward," Cardenas said.
Mexicans vote July 1 for a new president and Congress, and campaign season is beginning. Calderon cannot run for re-election.
Calderon had promised delegations from the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2008 and again in 2010 that he would push to make attacks on the news media a federal crime.
Journalists came under even greater siege in 2011. An estimated 19 journalists fled their states for safer regions of Mexico last year, Cardenas said.
In areas where besieged journalists have been frightened into silence, Mexicans have often turned to social media — Facebook and Twitter — to keep informed of roadblocks, shootouts, beheadings and other mayhem. But efforts to gag users of social media have come from both state government and crime bosses.
Lawmakers in Veracruz and Tabasco states enacted laws last year against social media users who create "alarm" or perturb public order.
Along the border with Texas, the Zetas crime group is believed to have slain at least four people last fall that it claimed posted information about security issues on the Internet. Two of the victims were hung from a bridge in the city of Nuevo Laredo.
Press advocates said they expected little difficulty in gaining approval of states for the amendment's enactment. But further framework legislation is needed, analysts said, and without it attorneys for those accused in attacks on journalists would have legal grounds to prevent prosecution at the federal level.
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