Be careful what you Tweet

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Sep 14th 2011, 19:25 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY

SAYING what you think in print has always carried aSketch for Twitter. See also the author's desc... risk for journalists. Between 2006 and 2010, at least 37 media workers were killed or went missing in Mexico. In some places the risks have become so great that the print and television media have stopped reporting on the drug war. Last year in Ciudad Juárez, El Diario ran a front-page editorial asking the drug traffickers: “What do you want from us?”

In the face of a news vacuum in the traditional media, citizens have turned to the safety and anonymity of the internet. Last year we reported from Reynosa that the city government had started using its Twitter account as a means of warning citizens when gunfights were going on. Anonymous blogs print details that newspapers fear to reveal. Twitter, Facebook and the like provide a forum to swap information and gossip.

But the chill on freedom of expression is now extending into cyberspace. Yesterday morning commuters discovered the tortured bodies of a young man and woman strung up from a footbridge in Nuevo Laredo, a northern border city that has seen heavy fighting linked to the drug wars. Near them was a mis-spelled notice threatening: “This will happen to all the gossips on the internet”. It mentioned two websites: El Blog del Narco and Al Rojo Vivo. (Be warned, if you click through, you may find photos that you will find hard to forget.) It isn’t clear how the killers selected their victims, as such blogs usually allow anonymous comments. But posters are likely to think twice before uploading information in future, even anonymously.

Criminals aside, social networks are facing another threat from the government. Two people in the state of Veracruz were recently arrested, preposterously, on charges of terrorism, after they spread apparently false rumours via Twitter that children were being kidnapped from local schools. In the ensuing panic, parents rushed to collect their children, leading to a series of car crashes. Gilberto Martínez Vera, a teacher, and María de Jesús Bravo Pagola, a radio presenter, initially faced maximum sentences of 30 years in prison for their 140 characters of gossip. The state is now reportedly planning to change its penal code so that the pair can be charged, retroactively, with “disruption of public order”. The fact that the pair committed a “crime” that was not a crime at the time seems to matter little to the state’s legislators.

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