July 8, 2005

The Kidnapping of a Newspaper

By Eduardo Stanley

FRESNO, Calif.—Since 2000, 16 journalists have been assassinated or “disappeared” in Mexico according to the organization Journalists Without Borders. Five of those cases have occurred this year. But on the morning of June 16, a new wave of aggression against the press took shape when a Oaxacan newspaper was violently taken over by a mob of people pretending to be striking workers from the paper.

“More than 100 plain-clothes police officers, street-fighters and others participated in the assault,” said journalist César Morales, a reporter for the besieged newspaper Noticias.

The takeover trapped 31 press workers — among them reporters, graphic designers and administrators — inside their newspaper’s building. The group has been stranded inside for nearly two weeks, without permission to leave or to receive visitors or food.

“This is a unique situation worldwide — not even Al Jazeera lived through something like this after the North American invasion of Iraq,” Morales said by phone. “The extraordinary part about this is that the people who have taken over the building are protected by the state police and they are constantly threatening that they will set the building on fire.” Many believe that the mob is taking orders from a local politician who is both a representative in the state legislature and union boss.

Noticias is Oaxaca’s biggest newspaper, publishing nearly 20,000 copies a day and employing 102 unionized workers in addition to dozens of administrative positions. Employees of the paper and human rights groups say action against the paper was taken because of the independent outlet’s critical reporting on local and state government, which is comprised largely of members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Fox’s party defeated the PRI in the 2000 election, but the PRI remains powerful in many parts of Mexico.

“In Oaxaca, perpetual repression against organizations and activists is common, and what is happening with Noticias is part of the PRI’s political coercion,” said Leocencio Vásquez, a member of the Coalition of Binacional Organizations, headquartered in Fresno.

“There is no doubt that this is the school of the PRI — repressive and brutal,” said Mireya Olivera, who is Oaxa-can and the editor of Impulso magazine in Los Angeles.

Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico. It is also marked by a massive migrant exodus. Waves of people leave Oaxaca yearly in search of work in other parts of Mexico or in the United States. With nearly 3.5 million inhabitants and 16 indigenous groups, Oaxaca has the highest rates of illiteracy in the country and 95 percent of the state’s budget comes from the federal government. The state government rarely publicizes its management of federal funds.

The decisive attack against Noticias - and the murky sequence of events following — began when a PRI congress-person intervened during the paper’s labor negotiations. After negotiating a new labor contract, where workers had accepted a 5 percent salary increase, the PRI’s Oaxacan state congressman, David Aguilar, said he represented the workers and denied the agreement. He demanded an immediate 25 percent increase and staged a strike, but none of the “strikers” work at the newspaper. A few days ago, Aguilar announced that he would let the Noticias workers go if the paper stops publishing.

“The Mexican federal government refuses to intervene, arguing that it is a local problem,” Morales says. “Nevertheless, the assailants have high-caliber weapons and this is kidnapping.”

On June 19, the newspaper’s electricity and telephones were cut, but services were later restored.

“This is an attempt to silence a critical, independent media, something that the dominant PRI bosses cannot accept,” said Genaro Altamirano, sub-director of Noticias and one of the sequestered journalists.

Surprisingly, Noticias is still publishing daily. “We work from inside and those on the outside also do their work,” Morales said. “Everything is sent to another place where it is printed and distributed.” He did not give any more details.

“In Oaxaca, journalists feel a lot of pressure, and the government wants to control what is said,” says Olivera, who worked in print and radio in his home state before immigrating to California. “In many cases, the press censures itself — it’s part of our culture of ideological dependence.”

In last year’s elections, Noticias supported candidate Gabino Cué of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), who lost under suspicious circumstances — the votes were not tabulated and a local judge decided the result. This, critics said, accelerated the PRI’s attempts to eliminate the newspaper. In Oaxaca, traditional political bosses still dominate, and the PRI’s hierarchy is part of the intimate circle of the party’s 2006 presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo, who has been criticized for corruption and manipulation.

On June 22, almost 10,000 people marched in Oaxaca City in support of the sequestered journalists. The following day, the Inter American Press Association asked Mexican national and state authorities to guarantee the security of the workers. On June 27, Amnesty International sent a global Urgent Action request with the same objective. But the federal government has not responded. On June 30, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on Oaxacan Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz to end the newspaper blockade.

“This is not a simple political skirmish, it is an attempt by the [state] government to erase the independent and critical press,” Olivera said. “It is a war.”

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