The Internet on trial
The war on drugs, a powerful Mexican banker, and a libel suit add up to a big threat to independent online journalism
BY DAN KENNEDY
ASK AL GIORDANO about the theatrical possibilities of a high-profile libel suit that’s been filed against him and his Web site, the Narco News Bulletin (www.narconews.com), and he responds that he’s not going to talk about it.
But Giordano was, after all, a friend and acolyte of the late Abbie Hoffman — not to mention an anti-nuclear activist and a Boston Phoenix political reporter in the mid 1990s. And he is being sued in New York City, the media capital of the world, for accusing a powerful Mexican banker of being a drug trafficker. Then there’s the matter of his legal representation. Though Narco News is being defended by veteran progressive lawyer Tom Lesser, Giordano will represent himself.
In other words, look out. In a telephone interview from an undisclosed location in Latin America, Giordano makes it clear that he’d like nothing better than to confront his nemesis, Roberto Hernández Ramírez, not only about the issues at hand, but also about the entire misbegotten war on drugs.
“What I would prefer is that this be settled in the way we settle disputes over words in a democracy,” says Giordano, who believes the only solution to the drug problem — both at home and in the supplier nations of Latin America — is to end prohibition. “We could grab a couple of soap boxes, head up to Union Square, and debate all the issues.”
As for the trial itself — assuming one ever takes place — Giordano says, “I take the law very seriously, and am studying the court rules and will mount a very serious defense.” But you can assume that he and Lesser plan to depose Hernández and a whole host of Mexican and US officials. At some point Hernández may find himself wondering what he ever got himself into.
Sometime on or before next Thursday, April 19, Lesser will file a motion with the New York state court system seeking to dismiss Hernández’s libel suit against Narco News, a Web site Giordano launched a year ago to cover the war on drugs in Latin America. For the past year, Giordano’s been producing Narco News from “somewhere in a country called América,” as he signs his dispatches, taking on powerful icons ranging from the New York Times and the Associated Press to the governments of the United States and Mexico.
Among the icons with whom Giordano has tangled is Hernández, the principal owner of Banco Nacional de Mexico, more commonly known as Banamex, which Hernández bought from the Mexican government in 1991. Last August, Hernández and Banamex sued Giordano, the Narco News Bulletin, and Mexican journalist Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, accusing them of libel, slander, and “interference with prospective economic advantage.”
The reason: Giordano and Menéndez, both in interviews last year with the Village Voice and WBAI Radio and in a public appearance at Columbia University, charged that Hernández is a drug trafficker whose profits helped to finance the purchase of Banamex. Giordano also published those charges in Narco News.
Giordano and Lesser say their defense is based on the simple fact that the charges are true, and that they were found to be true in the Mexican courts. They say that Menéndez and the newspaper he publishes, Por Esto! (“That’s Why!”), which has reported extensively on Hernández’s alleged drug-trafficking ties, were sued by Hernández and Banamex in Mexico, and that Menéndez prevailed on two occasions, with a judge ruling that Por Esto!’s reporting was grounded in fact.
But Hernández’s US lawyer, Thomas McLish, of the Washington, DC–based firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, counters that the charges against his client are false and have never been adjudicated in the Mexican courts.
“Their claims are not only untrue, but absurd, and they know it,” McLish says in a written statement provided to the Phoenix. “The assertion that a Mexican court has already found the statements to be true is simply wrong. The Mexican courts have never ruled that these accusations are true or are supported by facts.” The Mexican case, McLish adds, was “eventually dismissed ... on technical points of Mexican law, without ever addressing truth or falsity.”
This case is an important one, involving as it does questions of free speech in the Internet age, the consequences of the war on drugs, and the role of high-profile, well-connected lawyers.
First, though, a few notes of disclosure. This story involves enough entangling media alliances that it could be accompanied by footnotes. To wit:
• I worked with Giordano during his stint at the Phoenix, and was his immediate editor during his first year as the paper’s political reporter.
• Giordano continues to write occasionally for the Phoenix — including, most recently, a dispatch from Mexico on the motorcade by the Zapatista rebels led by the mysterious Subcomandante Marcos (see “Rebel Rainmakers,” http://184.108.40.206/boston/news_features/top/documents/00669432.htm March 9, 2001), an event he covered for the Nation as well.
• A year before he started Narco News, Giordano wrote about the drug-trafficking accusations involving Hernández and Banamex for the Phoenix, carefully — and accurately — attributing those accusations to the reporting of Por Esto! (see “Clinton’s Mexican Narco-Pals,” http://220.127.116.11/archives/1999/documents/00521761.htm May 14, 1999).
THE CASE against the Narco News Bulletin was first reported last December by the Village Voice, and has since attracted the attention of the Boston Globe as well. Giordano was also interviewed last week on The David Brudnoy Show, on WBZ Radio (AM 1030).
No doubt Giordano’s status as a well-known activist has something to do with the attention he’s getting, but there also are some fascinating subplots.
The first is the battle of the lawyers. Northampton-based Tom Lesser, of Lesser, Newman, Souweine & Nasser, is highly regarded in leftist circles, having represented war-tax resisters and anti-nuclear protesters, including Giordano. Lesser recalls meeting Giordano for the first time about 20 years ago, after Giordano and other protesters had been arrested outside the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire — for a legal defense that included a Sunday-morning conference with future Supreme Court justice David Souter. Lesser also represented Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter in 1987, after they were arrested for protesting CIA recruitment at UMass Amherst.