Mexico’s Congress Drops Jail Time for Journalists from Child Protection Bill

President Enrique Peña Nieto's original bill proposed four-year prison sentences for journalists who violate the new law.
President Enrique Peña Nieto’s original bill proposed four-year prison sentences for journalists who violate the new law. (Simon Ruf)

EspañolThe Mexican National Congress has agreed to remove controversial portions of a new bill designed to protect children, including a provision which would have called for prison time for journalists who publish or disseminate information, images, or voices of children without the consent of their parents.

Presidents of various congressional committees announced changes to 80 of the 141 original articles of the bill presented by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on September 1.

The Law Gets a Makeover

“There have been a number of very profound changes, including the name of the law itself. The name of the General Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents has been dropped and replaced with a law that guarantees rights: the General Law of the Rights of Children and Adolescents. This is no small matter, because it changes the entire focus of the content of the law,” said the president of the Committee of Legislative Studies, Alejandro Encinas.

“With this [change], we’ve gone from a law that was protectionist and paternalistic, to a law that recognizes children and adolescents as right holders.”

Conference of presidents of the Commissions of the initiative for the Protection of Children and Adolescents.

According to information provided by the committees overseeing the revision process, among the proposed changes is the creation of a National System for the Protection of Minors, and the extension of rights to children and adolescents who pass through Mexican territory en route to the United States.

However, the most substantial change is the reduced penalties for journalists who violate the proposed law from prison time to administrative punishments.

“We agreed that if there are violations, they will be sanctioned administratively,” said Juan Carlos Romero Hicks, president of the Education Committee. “We are working on the details. We were very careful not to undermine freedom.”

Restricting the Work of Journalists

In a report released September 12, the Inter American Press Association (SIP) expressed concern that the legislation could be used to restrict freedom of the press. The organization warned that, even though the law had not been debated in Congress, it could be used to condemn journalists, writers, editors, and media directors to lengthy prison sentences.

In a letter to the president of the Chamber of Deputies and the president of the Senate, Claudio Paolillo, president of the SIP Commission for the Freedom of Information and the Press, asked that the legislation’s good intentions not interfere with freedom of expression and the public’s right to “uncensored information.”

“There is a lot of concern over the many ambiguities contained in the proposal, which give the state license to interfere with media content, creating an ideal framework for censorship,” wrote Paolillo.

SIP’s concerns stem from past experiences in Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, countries that all passed legislation aimed at protecting children that was later used to justify the restriction of certain media content.

Paolillo says SIP was particularly concerned with Article 82, which punishes the publication of information “that has a harmful or disturbing influence on the integral development of children and adolescents, that promotes violence, or justifies crime.”

Media publications would be subject to the discretion of authorities after publishing information related to drug and human trafficking, domestic abuse, or any other violent incident.

“It is clear that the state believes in the principle of subsidiarity, suggesting the media take on an educational role, when that is a task that corresponds to the government,” said Paolillo, defending the media’s right to operate freely.

Article 137 of the original version of the law called for a four-year prison sentence and a US$600,000 fine for those that violated its provisions — a punishment that would have been doubled for editors and media directors. A repeat offense could have meant the closure of the media outlet and the revocation of licenses.

In an interview with El Universal, Paolillo said the law was unnecessarily harsh: “Imagine a fine of this nature for a small or medium-sized news outlet; it would be bankrupt, finished.”

Children are a Presidential Priority

Peña Nieto presented the bill on September 1 as a matter of high priority, implying that it must reach the floor of the legislature by September 30. The president said the proposal “incorporates the ideas and approaches of legislators from varied political views, who have been working for months on this fundamental issue.”

“This is the first time I have used this power vested in me by our Constitution. I decided to do it, because the well-being of our children is a priority. I am sure that legislators from across the political spectrum agree,” the president said.

With the modifications that have been made, it is expected that the bill will reach the Senate floor before the end of September.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

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