Saturday, June 3, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

López Obrador vows to veto bill to raise libel fines

The bill could have grave consequences for freedom of speech in Mexico, or it could have been another act in an administration that does not shy away from political theater.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexico’s president said Wednesday that he would veto a bill aiming to raise the fines for “insulting” the head of state and other government officials.

“I don’t need that, I did not promote it. I’m going to veto it,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said during his morning press conference, citing his support for freedom of expression as reason for opposing the reform. 

Proposed by Bennelly Hernández Ruedas, a federal deputy from his own ruling Morena party, the reform to a 1917 libel law aims to raise the fines for such “insults” by nearly 700%. It was approved Tuesday by party-line vote in the Governance Committee of Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies.

The initiative does not raise the 11-month maximum prison sentence for libel of the president, but the bill text does state that sanctions in the country’s penal code “must also be reformed.”

Despite the bill’s provenance, López Obrador claimed to have been unaware of the initiative until it made news on Tuesday.

“I was surprised yesterday that the Chamber authorized raising the sentences for insulting of the president,” he said Wednesday. “One will have to pay two, three times more. I don’t know who did that.”

Hernández declined a request for interview, but in a press release issued Wednesday said that “media bias” focused the coverage of the bill on the president. She highlighted that it proposes to raise fines for insults to cabinet members, attorneys general, governors, Supreme Court justices and several other government employees as well. 

“The aim is to update the units defined by the law,” she said, referring to the economic reference used by the Mexican government to calculate monetary penalties known as the UMA, "so that it is determined in UMAs and not in pesos."

The value of one UMA in 2023 is 103.74 pesos (US $5.58). Hernández’s bill proposes to raise the fine for insulting the president from 5 to 40 UMAs, increasing the number of pesos one would have to pay from 519 to around 4,150. 

Deputy Bennelly Hernández Rudeas sits in a hall in Mexico's Chamber of Deputies in this photo provided by her press officer. (Hernández via Courthouse News)

While the literal enforcement of the bill, were it to become law, could have grave implications for freedom of speech in Mexico, such enforcement is highly unlikely. Several historians consulted by Courthouse News had never heard of the obscure law it aims to reform, let alone instances of it being applied. 

Andrew Paxman, a historian at Mexico's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, called the move “political theater” that could have a number of motives behind it. One possibility is that it was simply meant to keep the Morena base energized, but it also could have been Hernández’s way of sucking up to the boss.

“There’s a long tradition of political boot-licking in Mexico, fostered by authoritarianism,” said Paxman, noting that the trend was evident in the decades after the Mexican Revolution, when the law was first put on the books. Politicians and government employees would try to curry favor with those higher up on the political ladder by naming streets and raising statues in honor of presidents while they were still in office.

The boots being licked in the current case would clearly be on López Obrador’s feet, since his objection to it gives him a point in the debate over freedom of expression in Mexico. Critics have called the president out for his rhetoric toward journalists, who are under threat more than ever in the country.

“By disapproving of it, López Obrador gets to look more presidential,” said Paxman, suggesting the possibility that the initiative and the president’s opposition to it may have all been staged.

Still, journalists in Mexico did not take kindly to the news of the bill’s passage in committee. 

“We consider that these reforms to the Printing Law are contrary to the freedom of expression and could be a trap to carry out acts of censorship of people, particularly journalists,” said Luis Eduardo Velázquez, editor-in-chief of the news website Capital CDMX. 

He also considered the possibility that the bill was simply meant to cause a stir and win a quick political point, saying that López Obrador may be hoping to sweep the issue under the rug by opposing it. However, the bill still worries Velázquez. 

“We will have no guarantee of anything until the bill is withdrawn or undone,” he said. “And if it succeeds, we would be facing a serious regression in terms of freedom of expression and human rights.”

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.