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Guilty of Human-Rights Abuses Before the Trial : Mexico: A PEN mission to probe reports that the Salinas government muzzled journalists had already written the indictment.

March 08, 1992|Merle Linda Wolin | Merle Linda Wolin writes frequently about Latin America

Last November, delegates from Canadian and Los Angeles-based PEN, the writer's association, presented a resolution on Mexico at the group's 56th International Congress in Vienna. The document, part of PEN's worldwide campaign in behalf of imprisoned writers and freedom of expression, condemned the Mexican government for an array of human-rights abuses--including murder--committed against journalists in Mexico since 1983. The PEN delegates passed the resolution in good faith without discussion.

Given PEN's reputation as a strong advocate for free expression, few could have suspected that much of the information in the document was false or unsubstantiated, or that it had been edited to suit the narrow political purposes of a few members. And therein lies the tale.

I visited Mexico City in mid-October as one of four members of a mostly PEN-sponsored fact-finding mission. Our goal was "to investigate human-rights abuses against Mexican journalists, especially their right to freedom of expression." Other human-rights groups, such as Americas Watch, had reported that scores of Mexican journalists had been murdered in the past two decades and that, as of October, 1991, the killings hadn't stopped. There were also numerous reports in the Mexican press about Mexican journalists who had been assaulted, harassed and threatened with death. Were these reports true and, if so, who was responsible? Those are the questions I thought the mission would answer.

Imagine my surprise, then, when during our first day out a PEN colleague pulled a document from his briefcase and showed it to leftist writer Jorge Castaneda, our interview subject. Castaneda created an international stir in 1990, when he claimed that the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari had issued an indirect death threat against him, through his secretary, for articles he had written criticizing the proposed North America Free Trade Agreement.

Now, Castaneda was being asked to read what my colleague said was a PEN resolution on Mexico and offer his thoughts. The document was an unsubstantiated indictment of the Salinas government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party for every human-rights abuse against journalists in Mexico since 1971. It also called on the legislative bodies of the United States, Canada and Mexico "to reject any proposed Free Trade Agreement" until Mexico--and Mexico alone--cleaned up its human-rights act.

When I objected on grounds of fairness and ethics, one of my PEN colleagues said it was standard PEN policy to allow individuals whose names or cases are to be cited in PEN documents to read them before publication so they can withdraw their names, if desired.

Fine. But since our investigation hadn't yet taken place, we shouldn't even have such a document. It was too much like Alice in Wonderland. Why not read Castaneda the sentence with his name in it, or tell him we'd be including his case, and leave it at that?

The issue was never resolved. But throughout the five-day trip, no matter what the experts told us--that the Salinas government is not believed to be involved in any of the killings; that numerous "journalists" killed were drug dealers or other criminals who got hold of press credentials and then used them to pursue illicit activities, or that freedom of expression, particularly print and radio, has never been greater--my PEN colleagues persisted in pushing the view that freedom of expression in Mexico is embattled and the government is to blame.

Upon my return to Los Angeles, I wrote a detailed complaint to PEN West's acting president, Jonathan Kirsch. I requested an official PEN board inquiry "to examine what went wrong and to establish some rules and procedures to prevent such calamities in the future." I also asked that work on the mission be halted until the inquiry was completed.

I now see that asking PEN board members to investigate breaches of ethical and professional behavior in their own ranks was naive. When the resolution was presented at the International Congress in Vienna, some names and dates had been changed, the legislative bodies of the United States, Mexico and Canada were asked to "delay" the Free Trade Agreement instead of rejecting it, and "all three governments" were urged to live up to international standards of human rights and freedom of expression. But at its heart, the resolution remained an unjust, unsubstantiated condemnation of the Salinas government.

I wrote another letter to Kirsch, this time disassociating myself from the resolution and warning that, if PEN went public with it, I would expose the whole project. In December, I repeated the warning to the PEN West board, which then unexpectedly went into closed session. I later learned that the board never even addressed my concerns.

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