Journalist Emilio Gutierrez Soto escaped to the US after receiving death threats for his reporting in Mexico. He's now detained and facing deportation in what advocates call a key test of commitment to free expression.
After Emilio Gutierrez Soto received death threats for his reporting on alleged abuses by the Mexican military, he fled for his life to a country that prides itself on free speech, driving across the border with his then-teenage son to apply for political asylum in the United States.
"If I go back to Mexico, I won't live," Gutierrez told the court during his hearing.
Now the award-winning journalist is being held in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, despite never having broken US law. On April 9, 20 professional journalism organizations filed a friend-of-the-court ("amicus") brief calling for his immediate release in a move they hope will stay his possible deportation. They argue that the Gutierrez case is a crucial test of the United States' commitment to freedom of speech.
"Denying Emilio Gutierrez Soto and his son asylum, notwithstanding the certain fate they would suffer upon their return to Mexico, would be an egregious break in this long-standing record of the United States protecting foreigners, including journalists, who speak truth to power, notwithstanding the real dangers they faced by doing so," the journalism organizations said.
They believe his deportation would signal to repressive governments all over the world that journalists are fair game for dirty tactics.
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Recognition as a reporter
Gutierrez was a one-man show for a newspaper based in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua called El Diario del Noroeste. He says that as the only reporter in a small town, he was an identifiable public figure. He would travel in a truck with the newspaper's logo emblazoned on the side and wear his press credentials outside his clothes.
The El Paso immigration judge who ruled against his asylum claim questioned his credentials as a professional journalist because at the time of his trial he could not produce print copies of his work with a byline — he said he did not bring them along when he fled his home. The new filing submitted on April 9 includes copies and translations of his articles about subjects that would put him in immediate danger, such as police activity in the region and a military assault on hotel guests.
His lawyer, Eduardo Beckett, hopes the brief will help the appeals court see evidence of Gutierrez's work and understand why many of his articles were published without his name out of fear of retribution.
Beckett told DW Gutierrez would be killed if he was sent back to Mexico.
"Even if you change jobs, you can't undo the articles you wrote. Your name is out there. Everyone knows you."
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Detained after nine years of obeying the law
In the nine years since Gutierrez arrived in the United States and lodged his asylum application, he has earned a living by operating a food truck.
In October 2017, the National Press Club awarded him the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award on behalf of Mexican journalists facing often deadly working conditions. In December — more than a year after his asylum claim was denied — he and his son were handcuffed and taken into custody by ICE agents during a routine check-in. They have been held in detention in Texas for more than four months without charge as they wait for their appeal claim.
Their lawyer says both his clients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the detention has taken a toll on their well-being. Since his detention, Gutierrez's property also has been burglarized.
"Someone broke in to his house in the US, rummaged through his home, stole his food truck, and looked through his paperwork," Beckett says. "He's lost everything."
For now, it's a waiting game. The Board of Immigration Appeals could grant the pair immediate asylum, demand a new trial, or decide they're fair game for deportation.
For journalists, Mexico is world's most dangerous country not at war
The initial ruling denying their claim also took issue with Gutierrez's failure to seek safety by moving to a different part of his home country before fleeing to the US. But press freedom advocates say nowhere in Mexico is safe.
"There's a very clear upward trend of deadly violence against journalists in Mexico," says Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based non-profit and one of the advocacy groups who lodged the amicus brief.
Journalists who report on sensitive issues like corruption risk being kidnapped, tortured, disappeared, or murdered. Mexico bucks the trend of an overall decrease in killings of journalists worldwide. Instead, the CPJ says at least six Mexican journalists were murdered in connection with their work in 2017 — Mexico's worst annual figure.
"The situation has never been as bad as it is right now," Hootsen says. "We've had an unbelievable crisis of freedom of expression."
In 2017 the organization Reporters without Borders ranked Mexico the world's deadliest country for journalists outside a conflict zone.
A test for the US
As its southern neighbor faces a critical situation, the US also has been presented with a crucial test of its own support for free speech.
Penny Venetis, the Director of the International Human Rights clinic at Rutgers Law, opened a second legal front in Gutierrez's case by filing a suit demanding their release on the basis of international law against arbitrary detention and on constitutional grounds. She believes Gutierrez has been unjustly detained because he fits two categories of person that US President Donald Trump has maligned.
"Emilio is a target because he's Mexican and he's a journalist. The First Amendment is meant to protect exactly this kind of speech," she says.
Gutierrez has publicly expressed his disappointment in US immigration policies. His lawyer, who has handled several other political asylum cases for Mexican journalists, sees Gutierrez and his son's detention as a form of revenge.
"I feel that there's been retaliation and reprisals against my client for being a journalist, for being outspoken, and I think he's being targeted by ICE," Beckett told DW.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the circumstances of the Gutierrez's detention and did not answer repeated requests to respond to his lawyer's allegations, but the agency has said that the two men pose a flight risk in the past.
Kathy Kiely, the Press Freedom Fellow for the National Press Club, emphasizes that Gutierrez came to the United States legally and requested asylum right when he arrived through a port of entry.
"I separate Emilio's case from the debate over immigration and deportations. This guy is not an illegal immigrant," she says.
Kiely worries about the precedent Gutierrez's detention and possible future deportation could set.
"If journalists around the world know there is no safe refuge in the US this will have a chilling effect on journalism in conflict zones."