Advocacy letter August 12, 2020
Mexico: Organizations Request Information on NOTIMEX Leadership's Attacks on Journalists
Members of the International Civil Society Organisations Coalition on the Safety of Journalists sent an information request to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in response to reports that leadership at the Mexican State News Agency (Agencia de Noticias del Estado - NOTIMEX) used the agency to attack and harass journalists, former employees, and critics.
Based on the right to petition, the document asked for investigations on possible abusive use of power and irregularities in the management of public funds by the director of the agency, Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor. These facts had been publicly reported by ARTICLE 19, Aristegui Noticias and ITESO’s Signa_lab, and are based on robust evidence and testimonies. To date, we have not received any response and attacks against witnesses have been taking place again, especially after a BBC piece on the case was published on 8 August. While we await an answer, we are making public our information request currently pending before the Mexican Presidency.
1 July 2020
ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR
CONSTITUTIONAL PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED MEXICAN STATES
Dear Mr. President,
We, the organizations signing this letter, respectfully state the following:
NOTIMEX is a public institution created with the objective of disseminating relevant, accurate and unbiased information to the Mexican people. The organizations signing this letter oppose the use of this agency to insult, attack, and harass journalists. This contravenes its responsibility to guarantee freedom of expression and the exercise of journalism.
On 12 May of this year, the organization ARTICLE 19, together with Signa_Lab1 from the Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education (Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, ITESO) and Aristegui News (Aristegui Noticias), published two reports highlighting that the senior leadership at Mexico’s state news agency (NOTIMEX) organizes coordinated actions to attack journalists and former employees considered “adversaries.” (See Annex I available only in Spanish)
The second report, published on 18 June, contains videos, testimonies and images as evidence of attacks orchestrated by the director of NOTIMEX, Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor, using fake accounts – and even official accounts – to go against those who criticize her management, whether they are former employees or other individuals. Evidence reveals the use of two chat groups: “Halloween Party” and “SOS,” to send threatening messages to those who refuse to participate in a “network strategy,” put together by NOTIMEX employees, where journalists, former employees and critics are attacked. (See annex II available only in Spanish)
ARTICLE 19 interviewed 14 people with direct knowledge of what goes on in the NOTIMEX newsroom. Testimonies concur that Martínez Montemayor has instructed her staff to use personal accounts to create fake profiles in order to defend her leadership of the news agency and harass journalists.
“Instead of us concentrating on journalistic work, the agency has concentrated on attacking those who criticize management on social media,” stated one testimony. Another person interviewed confirmed that Martínez: “has always shown an invasive attitude and requires us to use personal accounts to “defend her and the agency.”
Yet another testimony stated that “through directors, mainly Erick Muñiz, we were told that we had to create accounts, and if we didn’t, they started to intimidate and bother us. They even wrongfully fired lots of people, because if you didn’t join in supporting Sanjuana, you immediately became the enemy, which they had to destroy.”
Former employees who were fired for refusing to participate in Twitter attacks were tormented by the same accounts that generated attacks on journalists. Manuel Ortiz, former director of International News, and Alejandro Melendez, photojournalist, were attacked in this way by accounts @OverflowLucio, @SandyWong21, @Manho579, @SutntxAgoniza and @lui_ovejero.2 It is worth mentioning that after publication of the first report, these accounts were deleted.
In relation to the first Signa_Lab ITESO report, the laboratory carried out a new report3 that expanded the analysis of these accounts and others. The new report states that both active and deleted accounts are profiles orchestrated and/or used by third parties with specific purposes. That is to say, they are not automated accounts (bots).
Signa_Lab’s report also shows that many of the accounts mentioned were created in 2012 and reactivated in 2019 in order to insert specific messages and narratives. This is the case for the now-inactive accounts @justicia_karma, @Sandywong21 and @NatiVillaneda, which, in this case, were activated by NOTIMEX agency authorities to attack perceived inconveniences, as can be seen in Signa_Lab’s data sets.
On 15 May, Aristegui News published a new report explaining in detail how these irregular operations work to harass journalists and protect the agency director’s name.4
On 22 May of this year, you declared during a morning conference that the solution was to “calm down,” suggesting that this is a matter between individuals. But the truth is that complaints about NOTIMEX should be objectively and impartially investigated.
We must also note that, in the face of these revelations, and with no diligent and effective Mexican state response in sight, advocates from Signa_Lab and ARTICLE 19, as well as Carmen Aristegui and her team, have been defamed by NOTIMEX management. They have also been systematically and broadly attacked on social media, undermining the safety of members of these organizations and this media outlet. Aristegui’s case is even more serious as she has been attacked in direct relation to her work as a journalist. The attacks have sought to discredit her work and the media outlet she runs, positioning a narrative about her private life and that of her son. Attacks against Aristegui and her work as a journalist have been constant in this government and during the past two six-year terms.
Attacks escalated on 19 June, when Martínez Montemayor tweeted a threat of legal action against those conducting the investigations: “I would like to inform you that legal action against those responsible for damaging my image has been left in the hands of my lawyers. As a citizen and journalist, I have the right to defend myself from slander and the dark campaign started by shady interests more than a month ago.” This contravenes international standards on freedom of expression and human rights, as criminal law should not be used against journalists and civil society organizations that bring to light abuse of power on the part of public servants.
The NOTIMEX case demonstrates misuse of public resources and abuse of power as it coerces and intimidates team members in order to design and execute campaigns of hatred, discredit, and slander against journalists, former employees, and people who Martínez Montemayor considers to be adversaries. As a result, she should be relieved of her duties while legal investigations are conducted to determine legal responsibility for these actions.
In November of 2019, members of an international mission visited Mexico. We had the opportunity to meet with various public servants and agreed on the urgent need to combat impunity for crimes against freedom of expression. However, Mexican judicial authorities routinely fail to investigate or duly prosecute crimes against journalists and human rights defenders, revealing the country’s serious institutional deficiencies. This has allowed threats and attacks against journalists and media outlets to increase. This failure to investigate Mexico’s state news agency will seriously impact freedom of expression and the Mexican people’s right to information.
As a result of the aforementioned and in exercise of our right to petition, we would kindly ask that you provide the following information:
- If your government has taken measures to attend to and investigate the findings reported by ARTICLE 19, SIGNA Lab and Aristegui News regarding Mexico’s state news agency (NOTIMEX) leadership.
- If response to the previous question is affirmative, report in detail on the measures taken by your government to deal with the actions of Mexico’s state news agency’s management, to the detriment of freedom of expression and access to information in the country.
- In particular, report any instructions given to the Secretary of Public Affairs to investigate NOTIMEX’s possible use of public resources to carry out attacks on journalists. ARTICLE 19 presented a complaint before the SPA on 5 June 5 2020.
- Report if there are any guidelines, instructions, or anything similar, within your presidential office or as part of the presidency’s social communication, that prohibits and sanctions the use of public resources to intimidate the press.
- Report what measures you will take from this moment onwards to guarantee that management of Mexico’s state news agency is not used for purposes other than those granted by Law.
- Report what guarantees your government can offer NOTIMEX employees so that they may denounce – publicly, and without fear of reprisals – the illegal orders they have received from the director to denigrate journalists.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to receiving a response within a reasonable timeframe and adhering to the principle of maximum transparency.
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Free Press Unlimited
Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP)
International Media Support
International Press Institute
International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF)
Observatorio Latinoamericano para la Libertad de Expresión (OLA)
- 1. Signa_Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory of the Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESO), working to generate and manage free knowledge, the analysis of networks and open-access repository.
- 2. To analyze the relationships between accounts that systematically harassed former NOTIMEX employees, Signa_Lab used a methodology comparing both quantitative and qualitative aspects, such as the number of followers and accounts followed, creation date, total tweets, frequency of tweets produced and the number of retweets, compared to the content itself and the type of content it creates and reproduces, and the users with whom it associates in the network of accounts.
- 3. Report available at: https://signalab.mx/2020/06/17/ataques-selectivos-ii/
- 4. “Chats reveal that ´The Avengers’ of NOTIMEX launched social media attacks on journalists, media outlets and critics.” Aristegui News, May 12, 2020. Retrieved from: https://aristeguinoticias.com/1505/mexico/los-avengers-de-notimex-ataca…
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