A new law on the right of reply was adopted last month in Mexico after it had hibernated for eight years in the Congress. But hopes that this act would empower citizens were shattered as the “reply process” put forward by this law is likely to be lengthy, legally convoluted and fully under the control of powerful media corporations.
The procedure for exercising the right of reply in the approved law was shaped by the dominant television groups that have consistently lobbied for retaining the power to decide whether or not to rectify facts disseminated in their shows, newscasts or other programs. They won this game and retained their power. This is why many experts and journalists say that the right of reply law favors the interests of mighty media groups (many of them close to political groups) instead of those of the citizens.
So, what does it take for an ordinary Mexican to reply to what they find false or offensive in the media? The answer is a large quantity of both time and, invariably, headaches.
Approved With No Changes…
A provision on the right of reply was added to the Constitution eight years ago, but no law guaranteeing this right has been adopted since then. On 4 November, President Enrique Pena Nieto endorsed the right of reply law that had stirred heated debates. He did this after several attempts by the Congress to pass the law quickly and without full discussion. His endorsement came after allegations of serious misconduct by the Senate in pushing the law through so rapidly.
All these problems were denounced by a group of congressmen who managed to stop the voting for a while. However, the bill was eventually passed by the Senate on 13 October with 73 votes in favor and 30 against, following long hours of debate. The law was passed without changing a single comma. The Senate is the upper house of the Mexican parliament.
Javier Corral, a congressman renowned for his fight against dominant television groups, wrote in a column in the media that Televisa, the most powerful player by viewership, revenue and influence on the Mexican television market, actively participated in drafting this law and lobbied for its approval. The bill was endorsed in 2013 by congressman Arturo Escobar known for his connections with people in Televisa, according to Mr Corral.
Finally, Mr Corral said during the debates in the Senate that it was a shame that a law that has been called for in decades was adopted under pressures from television companies. He slammed the insatiable lust for power and money that played a major role in the approval of a law “tailored for them.”
But why is this law so bad for citizens?
The Pain of Reply
The right of reply process as defined by this law is expected to be a long and tedious legal dispute between citizens and the media. The law makes it complicated for people to reply to facts or opinions in the media. It gives more power to media outlets instead of empowering people to defend themselves from abuse or false claims which media and journalists can make.
Organizations such as the Mexican Association of Right to Information (AMEDI) and the Mexican Association of Defenders of the Audiences (AMDA) as well as media and legal specialists and some congressmen agreed that the law is a major setback in defending the rights of the Mexican audiences.
What are the main obstacles?
First of all, to have their reply published or aired, citizens would have to prove their own facts to media outlets. In other words, the burden of proof falls entirely on people and not on the media that might publish articles they claim are true and fair, but are not. Citizens would have to show a recording of the incriminated program. If they don’t have one, they have to submit a request to the media outlet to get hold of the report where they were mentioned. They will have to wait for the recording to be delivered and then for an answer from the media outlet whether they are going to make a correction or not.
If the reply it is not accepted, citizens would have to go to the court and employ a lawyer, at their own cost, to take their case further. This would surely mean spending massive amounts of money and time - often, courts in Mexico can take months or years to come up with a verdict in a case. By then, it might be too late for a media outlet to publish any corrections, and even if they do, the damage will have already been done.
The law also states that media companies may refuse to broadcast or publish a correction if the source of the news reported by the media outlet is a news agency or a member of the government, no matter whether the report sports pure lies or slander. In other words, as a government official you can feed anything to the media and be invincible, because nobody can dispute it. Additionally, media can safely use wire content or any information from authorities as they are automatically exonerated from any responsibility.
An odd provision in the law empowers media outlets to charge people or citizen groups money if they publish paid announcements that are contested by government, companies and other entities. In short, if a citizen pays a media outlet to host an announcement criticizing authorities or companies, as it happens in the Mexican media, the media outlet can accept a reply from the company or authority and make the citizen pay for that article, too.
The right of reply law violates two articles of the American Convention on Human Rights that was signed by Mexico. One is Article 13 related to the freedom of thought and expression. The other is Article 14 related specifically to the right of reply, which ensures that “anyone injured by inaccurate or offensive statements or ideas disseminated to the public in general by a legally regulated medium of communication has the right to reply or to make a correction using the same communications outlet […].”
Courts worldwide have enforced the right of reply as a means to ensure that the public can express opposite points of view. But, unfortunately, that is not the case in Mexico. The recently adopted law seems yet another gift that lawmakers have given to the media moguls.
Photo: Javier Corral (Courtesy of Congress)