By Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2020

MEXICO CITY (AP) - President Andrés Manuel López Obrador denied Friday that his administration has hurt freedom of expression in Mexico, as claimed this week in an open letter signed by hundreds of people, including dozens of well-known intellectuals.

The group objected to López Obrador’s frequent accusations that those who disagree with him are “frivolous” or have financial or ideological ties to private interests or conservative groups.

The president has publicized some media outlets’ lucrative deals with past administrations, calling them wasteful. But the intellectuals say the tone of the attacks has damaged press freedom.

López Obrador said Friday he has not censored anyone and does not intend to do so.

“We are not going to censor anybody, we are not going to persecute anybody. They are always going to have all their freedoms guaranteed,” López Obrador said of the signers of the letter.

But at the same time, he added, “this group always supported neoliberal policies and now they feel offended, when what they should be doing is apologizing for having stood by and done nothing while the country was looted.”

The letter claims that “freedom of expression is under siege in Mexico, and with that, democracy is threatened.”

“President López Obrador uses the rhetoric of stigmatizing and defaming those who he calls his adversaries,” the letter continues. “This offends the public, degrades public discourse and debases the office of the presidency, which should use the language of tolerance.”

The group also cited government legal threats against media outlets, though there has been only one big case. In August the government announced a fine of $45,000 against a magazine that has long been critical of López Obrador, and it banned federal agencies from advertising in the magazine for two years.

The federal comptroller’s office argued the magazine presented false documentation while trying to get paid for a public health promotional ad that a previous administration ran in the magazine in 2018. Press groups called the fine excessive, noting the magazine billed less than $3,000 for the ad.

Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the president’s verbal volleys are concerning.

“Expressions that stigmatize are very damaging for freedom of expression and the incentive to commit violence against journalists and intellectuals is large,” Hootsen said.

Hootsen noted that 15 journalists have been killed in Mexico since López Obrador took office on Dec. 1, 2018. In the six years of the previous administration, 39 were killed.

“This administration is not carrying out the kind of direct censorship that was done under previous administrations, and that is good,” Hootsen said. “But violence against the press is at the same level, or higher.”

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