Lawmakers in the Mexican state of Sinaloa are expected to backtrack on some controversial legislation this week. The law in question prohibits journalists from photographing, videotaping or recording audio at crime scenes, forcing them to rely on official government accounts. After an outpouring of public disapproval and media protest, however, congressional leaders have promised it will be repealed, just as soon as they return from vacation.
The law, which was approved unanimously by the state congress on July 30 — but which some representatives have now admitted they didn't read in full — states that only crime scene information made available exclusively through the attorney general's office may be used in news accounts. It also bars officials from speaking to or giving statements to journalists.
Authorities argued that the measure was necessary so that Sinaloa can comply with federal-level judicial reforms requiring transparent hearings and investigations. The presence of news reporters could alter a crime scene or hinder an investigation, the state argued.
Local citizens and media outlets dubbed the disputed article of the Statutory Law for the Attorney General's Office, which is part of a wider package of related state reforms, the "gag law." Press rights groups denounced the measure, particularly since Sinaloa is one of the most crime-ridden states in Mexico and the traditional base of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.
"Under no circumstances will media outlets be granted access to crime scenes, allowed to record audio or video, or photograph people involved in criminal activity, nor may they handle information related to public security or the acquisition of justice," states the article of the law in question.
The scene at the February capture of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman, for example, which occurred in the Sinaloa port city of Mazatlán, would have been off-limits to press under the gag law.
The law was set to go into effect on October 15. A week after it was approved, however, and following a storm of protests organized by journalists in several major cities in the state — including Mazatlán, Culiacán, Guamúchil, Guasave, and Los Mochis — Sinaloa Governor Mario López Valdéz told news outlets that the legislation would be repealed after the legislative summer recess concludes on Thursday.
Even so, police in one Sinaloa city appear to have implemented the gag law on their own.
On August 2, three days after the law was passed, police uncovered a clandestine grave in Los Mochis, part of an alarming string of recent discoveries of mass burial sites in Mexico. The state prosecutor's office reported that only two bodies were discovered at the site, but when reporters approached the area to independently confirm the details of the find, they were turned away by authorities.
Family members of people who had gone missing in nearby towns and approached the scene hoping to learn the victims' identities were also forced to stay over a quarter mile away from the scene, local reports said.
Journalists have interpreted this incident as the first sign of the censorship and disinformation that could result from implementation of the gag law. News organizations also complained that the law was essentially being enforced around six weeks before it was set to take effect.
"The law would only serve to continue fueling impunity and a lack of accountability and transparency from the authorities in charge of seeking justice," said the free-speech group Artículo 19 in a statement. "This is a disproportionate measure, worthy of an authoritarian state."
According to the Sinaloa government, the gag law was submitted as part of an initiative to conform to the modernized judicial system called for in broader federal reform, which the government hopes will streamline legal proceedings.
In 2008, Mexico initiated a series of reforms to the criminal justice system, switching from an inquisitorial model — in which the accused is presumed to be guilty, and proceedings happen largely behind closed doors — to a US-style adversarial system, where the prosecution confronts the defense in an oral trial setting.
Currently, Chihuahua, Morelos, and Mexico are the only states in the country to have fully adopted the 2008 reform, which is set to go into full effect at all levels by 2016.
In Sinaloa's case, legislators hurriedly passed the local version, a 47-page document, on the last day of session before they punched out for a three-week vacation. Several lawmakers have since admitted that they did not read the entire bill and regret having voted for it.
On August 4, as the uproar against the gag law grew, the Sinaloa government reported that the governor signed an initiative to repeal it, saying it was intended to "guarantee victims or parties affected by crimes will receive justice and have their rights respected," and adding that "the safeguarding of crime scenes and information related to investigations is essential" for this process.
"It was unfortunately poorly worded. We could call it not very accurate," Governor López Valdéz said, referring to the four-paragraph clause.