By ENRIQUE KRAUZE
Former Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos was visiting a capital in the southeast of the country. As he got off the plane, the governor showed him the eight columns of a local newspaper that criticized the president. “What is this idiot (an obesity was actually used instead of the word “idiot”) thinking?” said López Mateos in disgust. A day later the editor of the newspaper was found dead.
I owe the anecdote to Gabriel Zaid, who read it in an article by Senator Manuel Moreno Sánchez in the magazine Siempre! A close colleague of López Mateos from the Basque Movement, it is hard to think that Moreno Sánchez would have published that text with any other intention than to warn about the enormous effects that a comment from the president can have on the life of the country. For this reason, it is difficult to imagine that López Mateos did not feel some remorse.
Things have changed.
Current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has not used that word to refer to his critics. He has used dozens of less vulgar, more measured terms, coined in many cases by himself, which allude not to the intellectual limitations of those he considers to be his adversaries, but to their moral integrity.
And another thing has changed. The president does not exercise his vexatious inspiration privately and incidentally, but rather intentionally and systematically, during his morning press conferences.
There is an obvious asymmetry in the situation. First of all, power. The president of Mexico has immense constitutional and extra-constitutional powers.
But in the face of all the president’s resources of power, what does a critic have? He has authority. The authority conferred on him by his readers, his listeners, his viewers.
And the asymmetry is in the use and abuse of the word. The president has unlimited time in his morning presser, which can run from two hours to even four hours, depending on his mood. The president’s now-familiar slogans reverberate in the mass media and on social networks. The writers or journalists who criticize him have only their own tribune top defend themselves.
That asymmetry translates into illegality. In Mexico, the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJN) has issued several recent rulings on the subject. Based on vast international jurisprudence and on “the preferential position” that freedom of expression enjoys in our constitutional democracy, the court has reached clear conclusions: The limits of acceptable criticism are, with respect to a politician, broader than in the case of an individual. Unlike the latter (the individual), the former (the politician) inevitably and consciously opens himself to rigorous scrutiny of all his words and deeds by journalists and public opinion and, consequently, must demonstrate a greater degree of tolerance. The accent of the different threshold of protection is not based on the quality of the subject, but on the character of public interest that the activities or actions of a specific person entail.
The “threshold of tolerance” to which the president is bound is not only greater than that of any journalist. As long as he is in office, that threshold should be higher than anyone else’s.
Based on these antecedents, all the critics who have been affected by the president would have the right to sue him for civil damages, not only before national courts, but also before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The truth is that half a century ago, as now, the only real limit to the abusive, asymmetric, illegal and irresponsible use of words is set by the president himself. Only he has been able to confront, if not in court, at least in the court of public awareness and his own conscience, the tragic consequences of his statements.
Perhaps López Mateos contemplated these consequences.
But those, as you know, were other times. Today all thresholds have been crossed. Today, the president of Mexico freely issues insults, defamations and slander from his presidential podium — with full names — of those who disagree with him and his government.
Today, dissenters — even duly elected legislators — are declared “traitors to the nation.” Today, opponents of the president can expect to see their personal and private data, including their patrimonial wealth, publicly revealed, in open and repeated violation of both civil and criminal Mexican law.
In a country where journalism has become a high-risk profession, local powers of all kinds (legal and illegal) can interpret presidential invectives as permission to harm and even kill. By this same logic, anyone of the people who have been singled out by the president could suffer damage or be shot by a sympathizer who takes the “defense of the homeland” into his hands.
The president must reconsider his attitude, before it is too late.
The above article first appeared in Reforma and is being republished in Pulse News Mexico with express prior permission.