Mexican Paper, Its Eyes on El Paso, Sues Belo for Business Disparagement

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

A Juarez, Mexico, daily newspaper — with big ambitions to publish across the border in El Paso, Texas, starting early next year — is suing Belo Corporation for libel and business disparagement, claiming a story about the paper this summer in The Dallas Morning News was a direct attack on its credibility among Americans.

“El Diario is obviously a Mexican newspaper, and obviously El Diario’s plans to expand into the El Paso market have been known for some time,” the newspaper’s attorney, Joseph G. Chumlea, said in a telephone interview. “That’s what made this article particularly damaging — that it came literally on the eve of El Diario’s expansion in to market. And that’s what we think contributes to the damage that has been, and will be, suffered by El Diario, on the Texas side [of the border], and probably on the Mexican side as well.”

The Spanish-language El Diario, owned by Publicaciones Paso del Norte, began preparing for a major push into the El Paso market two years ago. It moved an editorial office into the border city and broke ground on a new production plant near downtown El Paso that will be completed in early 2005. The lawsuit says the newspaper will be formally relaunched with a major redesign soon after the plant comes online.

In the lawsuit filed Nov. 1 in Texas District Court of El Paso County, El Diario alleges its business plans have been harmed by a July 4 Morning News article, headlined “Newspapers in fight over Juarez’s image,” that it says falsely portrays the newspaper as “soft-peddling” news about a horrific decade-long series of murders of women in the area. The lawsuit complains the article by Alfredo Corchado and Laurence Iliff attacks the editorial credibility and independence of El Diario by describing its news coverage as “portraying a phony, chamber-of-commerce-type image of Juarez, all to ensure lucrative newspaper advertising from the state and local governments, reminiscent of recent times when media was heavily influenced by government.”

By contrast, the rival newspaper El Norte was portrayed as having been “blacklisted” for its coverage of murders, the lawsuit complains. Over the course of more than ten years, several hundred women, mostly factory workers, have been murdered in Juarez, their bodies often showing evidence of ritualistic killing. El Diario says in its complaint that it has “an established track record for investigating, and editorializing against, political and government corruption and misdeeds in Mexico.”

The suit names Corchado and Iliff as defendants, in addition to Belo, publisher of the Morning News. It alleges in the libel and defamation counts that they acted with “actual malice,” that is, they printed false information knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of their statements.

The Morning News has not responded formally to the lawsuit, but, in a statement, Belo’s Deputy General Counsel David Starr said: “The Dallas Morning News performed a public service by reporting on the newspaper situation in Juarez in the article that is the subject of the complaint. The story was factualy accurate and is protected by the First Amendment, and we will vigorously defend against the complaint.”

In a statement, El Diario’s president, Osvaldo Rodriguez, said the paper believes in the press’ freedom to investigate and report, but “the Dallas Morning News article has gone far afield from these journalistic imperatives into false allegations, reckless disregard for the truth and misrepresentation of the facts.”

Added Rodriguez: “We have spent almost 30 years building a reputation of excellence in Mexico, but we are still a relatively unknown company in the United States. The statements made in the Dallas Morning News damage the only thing that we can stake our future on — our credibility.”

CORRECTION, Nov. 18: This story originally misidentified the lawyer representing Belo and the two reporters as Michael J. Shane. In fact, they are represented by Paul Watler of the Dallas firm Jenkens & Gilchrist, PC.

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