Mexico: Threats against Journalists on the Rise

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It isn’t news that journalists around the world risk their safety and security everyday to cover the stories that keep us informed and hold the powers that be accountable, but many people are surprised to learn that neighboring Mexico is an increasingly hostile environment for reporters. Press freedom watchdog International Press Institute (IPI) recently ranked Mexico as the most dangerous country for journalists and media personnel in the world so far this year.

Although violence and threats against journalists affect all regions of Mexico and media workers from photographers to editors, dangerous conditions for journalists in the border region, including Ciudad Júarez, have been making headlines. On September 16, two photographers from El Diario, Ciudad Júarez’s largest newspaper, were attacked by gunmen in a mall parking lot in broad daylight, killing 21-year-old photojournalist Luis Carlos Santiago, while his colleague survived the attack, but sustained serious injuries.

Mr. Santiago is the second El Diario journalist to be murdered in less than two years. In 2008, El Diario reporter Armando Rodríguez was gunned down days after he published an article linking the nephew of the attorney general of the state of Chihuahua to organized crime.

These murders prompted the Júarez newspaper to publish an unusually frank front-page editorial (click here to read the English translation) exhorting the nation’s drug cartels to tell them how to avoid another fallen colleague. “We want you to explain to us what it is that you want from us,” they write. While the letter provoked waves of attention for its bold address to the drug gangs, it also served as an indictment of the official authorities for failing to protect the people of Cd. Júarez, including journalists. “All of you are, at this moment, the de facto authorities in this city, because the legally instituted authorities have not been able to do anything to stop our colleagues from continuing to die, although we have repeatedly called for them to act.”

However, violence against journalists extends well beyond Cd. Júarez. Echoing the IPI ranking, a report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) describes Mexico as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the press. According to the CPJ, more than 30 journalists and media workers have been killed or disappeared since December 2006. Foreign correspondents have lost their lives as well. In 2006 Bradley Will, a U.S. Indy Media reporter, is believed to have been shot and killed by government-backed paramilitaries in the southern city of Oaxaca while covering protests in that city. 

An increasing number of threatened Mexican journalists have sought refuge in the United States in recent years. Despite horrific tales of targeted harassment, threats, and violence, the track record for such applications is dismal; according to NPR, the U.S. has granted fewer than two percent of Mexican applications for asylum over the last five years. However, there are indications that U.S. officials are beginning to recognize the plight of the press in Mexico. Just last month, Jorge Luis Aguirre of La Polaka, an online newspaper covering Ciudad Juarez, became one of the first Mexican journalists to receive asylum in the U.S

While the murders gain the most attention, countless other journalists experience a string of abuses including bribes, extortion, intimidation, and threats. In August, the offices of the TV network Televisa were attacked three times in less than two weeks. In 2009, Antuna García, a Durango city crime reporter, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered only after months of receiving threatening phone calls and enduring violent attacks on his house. (For more information on specific cases of violence against journalists, click here). 

And, as the El Diario courageously pointed out, Mexican authorities are not doing enough to protect journalists on the front lines. The CPJ calculates that 90 percent of all media-related crimes go unsolved in Mexico, contributing to a culture of impunity that encourages further attacks. In its report the CPJ claims to have “found negligent work by state prosecutors and police. Authorities have used unlawful methods, including coercion of witnesses and fabrication of evidence, on several occasions.”

What do the cartels want? It was a bold question posed by the El Diario editorial and one that the CPJ addressed in its September report. According to the CPJ, organized crime (as well as complicit public officials) exploits the media to “discredit their rivals, expose corrupt officials working for competing cartels, defend themselves against government allegations, and influence public opinion.” Organized crime syndicates aren’t only seeking silence from the press; they’re vying for strategic coverage that will further their illicit interests and increase their profits.

In the cartels’ push to control the media, too many journalists are forced to choose between self-censorship and reluctantly toeing the line of the drug cartels. Along the way, freedom of expression is severely jeopardized and a culture of fear and silence further permeates Mexico. As long as the cartels control media outlets, crimes will never be solved, the drug war will never be won, and the Mexican public will continue to be denied their fundamental right to be informed, hardly a recipe for a healthy, democratic society.

In recent weeks, President Calderón has indicated that he will initiate a new program to protect journalists that takes into account a serious of specific recommendations issued by the CPJ. Details are limited, but it appears to include a push to make attacks on the press a federal crime, an early warning system that will give journalists immediate access to authorities if threatened, and establishing a council to investigate the causes behind attacks. While this is a step in the right direction, Mexico has pledged to protect targeted groups before. With that in mind, Calderón’s plan will be treated as just words on paper unless backed by adequate resources and political will.

President Calderón must take threats against journalists and media workers seriously. Now, more than ever, Mexico needs a robust investigative press to improve transparency and hold power accountable. Mexican democracy depends on it.  

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