In late August, six Mexican journalists and a few colleagues from Freedom House gathered around the table at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Torreón, State of Coahuila, to discuss their freedoms to write and express their opinions. Since 2008, these rights have been seriously limited. The infiltration of organized crime in security and justice institutions, mostly at the local level; the militarization of public security; and the virtual collapse of the justice system are largely to blame for this. Mexico is now one of the world’s most dangerous and complicated places to practice journalism.
The journalists spoke of fear in doing their work as crime reporters. They had received frequent threats from one or another of the competing drug cartels, gangsters, and the authorities. In February 2013, three of their colleagues from the newspaper El Siglo de Torreón had been kidnapped. They were later released unharmed, but all at last month’s gathering were aware that the same could happen to them. Facing this threat, the journalists sought training in security measures and the support of media proprietors.
National outlets with regional correspondents and some regional newspapers had the resources to train their staff, but journalists working with community radio stations and freelancing were left alone to face the threats. Dead animals were left at their doorsteps, their cars were painted, or verbal abuse was hurled through their cell phones. The latest report by Freedom House on press freedom in Mexico states that 76 journalists were murdered between 2000 and 2013, and an additional 16 have disappeared since 2003.
In the face of intimidation, several journalists sought a transfer from the crime beat to less controversial sections of the newspaper, such as culture and sports. However, braver souls continued to cover crime, removing all identification that would expose them as journalists. They consulted Article 19, the London-based international organization for the protection of journalists. They formed networks to share experiences with others. Meanwhile, many editors took assassinations off the front page and printed little more than the police bulletin in the lower corners of inside pages. They restricted their coverage to the minimum to give the impression that security had improved.
This tactic, intended to protect both journalists and editors, infuriated readers, who complained that newspapers were hiding information. At our university meeting, the editorial coordinator for El Siglo de Torreón admitted that he received strong criticism, saying, “The paper was meant to be a defender of people, but it no longer defends anyone.”
Proprietors are shaken by threats to their journalists, but have so far done little to protect them. Apart from an attack on the publisher of the national newspaper La Reforma, there are no published assaults against media proprietors. Instead, it is investigative reporters who bear the brunt of attacks. On August 11, Octavio Rojas, a crime reporter at the newspaper El Buen Tono, was murdered outside his house in Oaxaca. His report on the local police’s confiscation of 16,000 litres of stolen fuel, found in three trucks belonging to the municipal police chief, had been published 48 hours earlier. According to Article 19, Oaxaca is the third worst state in Mexico for attacks on journalists, with 139 assaults between January 1, 2007, and the first quarter of 2014. Mexico City’s Federal District is considered the most dangerous state for journalists, followed by Veracruz.
In 2011, the government of President Felipe Calderón introduced far-reaching constitutional reforms to protect human rights by incorporating international treaties and standards into Mexican law. Current president Enrique Peña Nieto’s Pacto por México also contained a robust chapter on the legislation required to make constitutional safeguards a reality. A growing awareness exists in Mexico of the need to protect human rights, including the rights of journalists. But there is serious resistance and considerable reluctance to enforce such legal provisions, especially from the security and justice sectors.
In pursuit of its legal obligations, the Mexican interior ministry, known as SEGOB, is currently creating a federal protection program for journalists and human rights defenders. A journalist whose complaint of harassment is brought before SEGOB can obtain federal protection. However, his or her capacity to carry on as a journalist with that police protection is dubious. One senior writer expressed the general sentiment when he regretted that federal protection was a ticket to retirement.
What is the solution? First, journalists in Mexico recognize their need to become more professional. The years of payments for favorable stories have led to bullets for unfavorable press. Pride in the profession and recognition that a functioning democracy needs independent, truthful journalists must be stressed. Journalists should not belong to anyone: corporate interests, real-estate managers, federal and local authorities, or criminal enterprises. The old dependence on private and government support has resulted in vulnerability to the current power brokers, namely the cartels that ship illegal drugs to the United States.
Second, the federal government, in respecting its constitutional reforms and international obligations, must defend journalists as citizens and protectors against the abuse of power. The Mexican government needs independent-minded reporters to investigate corruption so that the newly formed Anti-Corruption Commission can do its work. Also, SEGOB needs to make its mechanism for protecting journalists and human rights defenders both credible and effective. The new mechanism may lead some journalists into retirement, but that is preferable to the graveyard.
Finally, journalists must support one another. They should increase collaboration with professional associations and civil society to provide technical assistance on how to confront the major obstacles facing their profession. They should not retreat from dangerous stories, because citizens depend on journalists to investigate events, dig out corruption, reveal scandals, and report accurately on murders, kidnappings, rapes, and robberies in their communities. Silencing crime stories will not make the criminals go away. Furthermore, in the absence of responsibly investigated stories, citizens will rely on rumors—a far more inflammatory form of news.
To facilitate mutual support among journalists, a new website, Journalists at Risk—with an interactive crowdsourcing map to both identify sites and register assaults against journalists—is being created. (An initial version is available atPeriodistasenriesgo.crowdmap.com.) Journalists can post their own stories, which are then verified by the website’s editor, Javier Garza. Bloggers, photographers, and journalists are reporting assaults and forming a professional network. Journalists at Risk also provides legal advice, security protocols, and links to international organizations that are committed to protecting the right to voice political, cultural, social, and economic opinions and dissent. This type of network is well placed to protect journalists and give them the confidence to continue investigative reporting into crime and corruption, as well as to provide useful professional knowledge.
In addition, the International Center for Journalists holds annual workshops with journalists and editors to impart skills related to investigative reporting, security protocols, cybersecurity, and mobile and digital journalism in order to build their professional capacities. This autumn, a virtual workshop will take place over five weeks for journalists from Mexico and other Latin American nations. The purpose is to create an atmosphere in which journalists can work and democracy can strengthen.
Mexico has much to accomplish in its transition to a democratic society. It is strengthening its rule of law, building credible police forces at the federal level, and creating independent regulatory commissions to check abuse and assure transparency. Journalists can participate effectively in this transition by working together and adhering to their own professional responsibility to report the truth, but the state can also do more to keep them safe.
Diana Villiers Negroponte is a trustee of Freedom House and a member of the Board of Advisors at the Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Saldana