A high-ranking official with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has urged the federal government to consider scrapping its fake news exposé sessions, the first of which was held this week.
President López Obrador announced June 23 that debunking fake news would become a regular feature of his morning press conferences.
“… We’re going to have … someone from the government who tells us the lies of the week; a who’s who in the lies of the week in order to combat fake news,” he said.
Ana Elizabeth García Vilchis, a ruling Morena party insider with no prior experience in government, was anointed as the fake news debunker-in-chief and led the first “who’s who of lies” on Wednesday. More on that later.
On Thursday, the IACHR’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Pedro Vaca, said the government’s practice of exposing fake news – or what it classifies as such — must be reconsidered because it could affect people’s right to a free and informed debate.
Speaking at a virtual United Nations seminar on the protection of human rights for activists and journalists in Mexico, at which federal government communications coordinator Jesús Ramírez was among the attendees, Vaca said there were doubts about whether the section of the president’s press conference led by García complied with international human rights standards.
“I would like to invite all of you to put yourself in the position of a person who is singled out, with their name and surname, for what he or she has said … like the Pinocchio of the week,” he said.
“… What impact might this have on their future freedom of speech, on the conditions to express oneself on matters of public interest,” the special rapporteur added.
It has been documented that journalists who have challenged López Obrador at his morning press conferences and written critical reports about the government have been ridiculed and threatened on social media. The editor of Reforma, which the president frequently rails against, received death threats in 2019 after López Obrador criticized the Mexico City-based broadsheet. A bomb threat was made against the same newspaper in 2020 after it published negative news about the president’s management of the coronavirus pandemic.
Press freedom advocacy group Article 19 said in 2019 that López Obrador’s “stigmatizing discourse” against the media “has a direct impact in terms of the … risk it can generate for the work of the press because [his remarks] permeate in the discourse of the rest of society and can even generate attacks.”
Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said last September that government attacks on the media can have serious repercussions for journalists, explaining that reporters who have been criticized by López Obrador at his weekday news conferences have received thousands of adverse and hostile messages on social media and even death threats.
“It’s a situation that all of Mexico knows about, it’s not new … and it’s something that the federal government also knows, although its practices continue to be the same in the morning conferences in the National Palace,” he said.
It would seem logical that the extension of the practice via weekly “who’s who of lies” sessions has the potential to worsen the already hostile environment faced by reporters in Mexico, where more than 40 journalists have been killed since López Obrador took office in late 2018.
Echoing Article 19’s statement, Vaca said that the “stigmatization” of the media by the government could provoke attacks against journalists.
He questioned what action the government would take to correct the record if it accuses a reporter or media outlet of disseminating fake news but its accusation is subsequently shown to be false. Article 19 has already labeled López Obrador’s weekday press conferences “a worrying instrument of misinformation.”
The misinformation continued during Wednesday’s fake news exposé, according to a report by the news website Animal Político.
García said that her section of the president’s presser was “in no way” attempting to “harass or censor” journalists but rather “inform truthfully so that the people of Mexico can exercise their right to access information that allows them to form an opinion with certainty.”
Animal Político, however, said there were “omissions, imprecisions and even false remarks” in her presentation.
The news website challenged claims made by both García and López Obrador about media coverage of the apartment tower collapse in Miami and allegations that the federal government is spying on journalists.
The president questioned why The New York Times, which last month published an extensive investigation into the May 3 Metro disaster in Mexico City, hadn’t published a similar report about the Florida disaster. Animal Político pointed out that the newspaper has in fact reported thoroughly on the tragedy and its suspected cause.
The news website also charged that García made incorrect assertions about news organization Univision, journalists Joaquín López-Dóriga and Raymundo Riva Palacio, Spanish newspaper El País and the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, which was published last month and raised concerns about “frequent attacks from a populist president who accuses the media of unfair coverage and corruption.”
With regard to El País, for example, García accused the newspaper of not seeking an opinion from the government before publishing a story on radioactive waste at a Federal Electricity Commission nuclear power plant in Veracruz.
But the story, Animal Político noted, said the state-owned utility didn’t respond to the request for comment it received from El Páis.
Referring to fake news she claimed to have debunked, García said that “this type of information threatens the democracy for which we’ve fought so much in this country.”
But others saw the “who’s who of lies” as the real threat to democracy.
“The who’s who of lies is a distraction, a circus, intimidation, an abuse of power, an authoritarian practice [and] a sign of intolerance to critical scrutiny,” political scientist and columnist Denise Dresser wrote on Twitter.
“The objective: divert attention from problems that journalism documents and about which the government lies.”