WASHINGTON, March 7, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- The National Press Club and its non-profit Journalism Institute on Thursday announced plans to remobilize a broad coalition of press freedom groups on behalf of Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto following an El Paso immigration judge's refusal to reverse a deportation order.
Judge Robert Hough's decision to send the Club's 2017 John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press winner and his son, Oscar, back to the country where they have been threatened with death came the same week the elder Gutiérrez delivered a keynote address at Amnesty International's annual general meeting in Chicago. In denying the Gutiérrezes' asylum request, Hough reaffirmed an earlier ruling the Board of Immigration Appeals had asked the judge to reconsider in light of new evidence.
Despite voluminous submissions from human rights and press freedom organizations about the murders of journalists in Mexico, Hough dismissed threats Gutiérrez received from Mexican military officials as "adverse experiences."
Gutiérrez can safely return to his home country, Hough wrote, because "Mexico has put legislation for the protection of journalists in place at both the federal and state levels." Although he acknowledged that "conditions in Mexico are far from ideal," the judge contended that Gutiérrez provided "no evidence" that his safety would be jeopardized by Mexican officials.
A State Department letter provided to Hough noted that Mexico is "the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist outside of war zones" and that local officials appear to be complicit in murders of reporters.
"We do not believe that Judge Hough gave adequate consideration to the evidence in this case that the Board of Immigration Appeals asked him to review," said Barbara Cochran, president of the National Press Club's Journalism Institute. "We will be asking other organizations that have supported Emilio's case to join us as friends of the court when Emilio's attorney files his appeal."
Gutiérrez currently is a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. Lynette Clemetson, director of the prestigious journalism program, is urging other journalism and press freedom organizations and members of Congress who advocate for First Amendment and human rights issues to intervene in the case.
"This ruling demonstrates a disturbing disregard of the facts, both those specific to Emilio and those regarding the horrific dangers facing journalists in Mexico." said Clemetson. "Having been before the judge in person, it seems clear that his decision was predetermined. It is important that people who believe in freedom and safety of the press continue to fight for a just outcome for Emilio, regardless of this disingenuous ruling. "
Gutiérrez has lived in the United States since 2008. He entered the country legally, requesting asylum for himself and his then-15-year-old son after a news source warned him that he had been placed on a hit list for his reporting on military corruption. U.S. immigration officials found he had "credible fear" of returning to his home country and allowed him to live and work in the U.S. while his case was adjudicated.
In July, 2017, Hough denied the Gutiérrezes' asylum case. While it was on appeal, agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested the reporter and his son. At the request of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the Rutgers University Law School's International Human Rights Clinic filed a writ of habeas corpus to obtain his release.
The federal judge in that case found that there was evidence suggesting ICE had targeted Gutiérrez in retaliation for his criticism of the agency and ordered the government to release all of its communications regarding the Gutiérrez case. Hours before the deadline, ICE released the Gutiérrezes instead. The National Press Club has filed several Freedom of Information Act requests for ICE and Department of Homeland Security communications about the Gutiérrezes and has received two heavily redacted tranches of documents, one early last year and one in December. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is representing the club in its effort to obtain a fuller release.
In denying the Gutiérrezes' asylum claim a second time, Hough focused on strict legal interpretations of the law. He suggested that the menacing visits Gutiérrez received from military officials did not constitute persecution because the journalist was not physically harmed. Although a military official told Gutiérrez, who had written three stories exposing official corruption, that "there won't be a fourth," Hough found it didn't qualify the journalist for asylum. "The General threatened the respondent not because of his political opinion but because he had interfered with his illicit activities," the judge reasoned.
When he first denied the Gutiérrezes' asylum requests, Hough made an issue of Gutiérrez's inability to produce online copies of the stories he wrote. After journalism groups were able to uncover more, Hough argued that the three stories he found on official corruption in the new batch of articles were not enough. He continued to question Gutierrez's credibility and argued that because "a person can change jobs," journalists do not qualify as a targeted "social group" under U.S. asylum law.
"Under Judge Hough's rationale, all reporters in Mexico have to do to stay out of danger is quit reporting — just what the drug cartels and corrupt officials want," said National Press Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak. "Dozens of well-known press and free speech organizations, including this one, find Emilio credible. Judge Hough is the only one who doesn't. That's why we are appealing for justice."
Kathy Kiely, National Press Club Press Freedom Fellow and Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism, 202-256-4748; firstname.lastname@example.org
Lynette Clemetson, Director, Knight Wallace Fellowship, 734-998-7666
SOURCE National Press Club