Mexican president defends sharing NYT reporter's number; says privacy laws don't apply to him

  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador defended Friday his decision to publicly disclose a New York Times reporter’s phone number.
  • López Obrador subsequently claimed “the political and moral authority of the president of Mexico is above” a law guaranteeing privacy, and that “no law can be above the sublime principle of liberty.”
  • López Obrador, a leftist firebrand, frequently accuses the media of partaking in a right-wing conspiracy to undermine him.

Mexico’s president on Friday defended his decision to disclose a reporter’s telephone number, saying a law that prohibits officials from releasing personal information doesn’t apply to him.

Press freedom groups said the president’s decision to make public the phone number of a New York Times reporter Thursday was an attempt to punish critical reporting, and exposed the reporter to potential danger.

Mexico’s law on Protection of Personal Data states “the government will guarantee individuals’ privacy” and sets out punishments for officials and others for “improperly using, taking, publishing, hiding, altering or destroying, fully or partially, personal data.”

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President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that “the political and moral authority of the president of Mexico is above that law,” adding that “no law can be above the sublime principle of liberty.” He also accused U.S. media of acting with “arrogance.”

He also downplayed the risks to journalists, saying it was “an old song that you (reporters) use to discredit our government,” and suggesting the Times reporter should just “change her telephone number.”

Mexico is one of the deadliest places in the world for reporters outside of war zones. The Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, has documented the killings of at least 55 journalists in Mexico since 2018, when López Obrador took office.

Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the CPJ, noted the publication of a reporter’s phone number in Mexico can be dangerous.

“The vast majority of threats and harassment and intimidation that reporters in this country, both foreign and domestic, receive, are conveyed through messages on messaging apps to mobile phones,” Hootsen said.

The situation began Thursday when López Obrador denied allegations contained in a New York Times story about a U.S. investigation into claims that people close to him took money from drug traffickers shortly before his 2018 election and again after he was president.

The story cited unidentified U.S. officials familiar with the now shelved inquiry and noted that a formal investigation was not opened, nor was it known how much of the informants’ allegations were independently confirmed.

As is common practice, the Times reporter had sent a letter to López Obrador’s spokesman asking for the president’s comment on the story before it was published, and included her telephone number as a means of contacting her.

At his daily press briefing that day, the president displayed the letter on a large screen and read it aloud, including her phone number.

Lopez Obrador

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gives his daily briefing on June 10, 2020, in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

In a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, the New York Times wrote that “This is a troubling and unacceptable tactic from a world leader at a time when threats against journalists are on the rise.”

Asked about the issue Friday at a White House press briefing, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “obviously, that’s not something we support.”

“It is important for the press to be able to report on issues that matter to the American people freely and in a way that, obviously, you all feel secure and safe and in a way that you’re not being doxed or attacked. That is, you know, that is something that we will obviously reject,” she said,

Mexico’s National Institute for Transparency and Information Access, the agency charged with upholding personal data laws, announced Thursday it is launching an investigation into the president’s actions.

But it is unclear how much good that will do: López Obrador has frequently criticized the institute and has proposed abolishing it.

Leopoldo Maldonado, of the press freedom group Article 19, said “Obviously, he is doing it with the intention of inhibiting the work of journalists and trying to prevent the publication of issues of public interest concerning his administration and the people around him.”

“This is something the president has done before,” Maldonado noted.

In 2022, López Obrador published a chart showing the income of Carlos Loret de Mola, a journalist who had written stories critical of the president.

The president said he got such information — which Loret de Mola has said is wrong — “from the people,” but later said he based the chart in part on tax receipts, which would have been available only to the party who wrote them or the government tax agency.

López Obrador regularly lashes out at the media, claiming they treat him unfairly and are part of a conservative conspiracy to undermine his administration.

He has also expressed anger at what he claims is U.S. tolerance for such media reports. It is the second time in recent weeks that the foreign press has published stories signaling that the U.S. government has looked into alleged contacts between López Obrador allies and drug cartels.

In late January, ProPublica, Deutsche Welle and InSight Crime published stories describing an earlier U.S. investigation into whether López Obrador campaign aides took money from drug traffickers in exchange for facilitating their operations during an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2006.

In that instance, López Obrador placed blame squarely at the feet of the U.S. government and wondered aloud why he should continue discussing issues like immigration with a government that was trying to damage him.

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On Thursday U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “There is no investigation into President López Obrador.”

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