Journalism Suffers amid Drug Wars in Mexico

Journalists are skeptical about government solutions

Increasing violence in Mexico has led journalists there to question whether doing their jobs is worth risking their lives. The situation has drawn worldwide attention to the chilling effect created when drug trafficking cartels and law enforcement intimidate and terrorize news media and reporters who scrutinize their activities.

On Sept. 8, 2010, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a 42-page report, titled "Silence or Death in Mexico's Press" that detailed how "crime, violence, and corruption are destroying the country's journalism." Among the report's findings were that more than 30 journalists or media workers have been murdered or have disappeared since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a military offensive against the country's powerful drug cartels in December 2006. The report said that 22 journalists have been murdered in that time, eight of whom were killed "in direct reprisal for reporting on crime and corruption." Additionally, the report said three media support workers have been killed and at least seven journalists have gone missing. Dozens more have been attacked, kidnapped, or forced into exile, the CPJ report said.

"The influence of organized crime over nearly every aspect of society, including government, police, and prosecutors, has made Mexico the deadliest nation for the press in the Western hemisphere and one of the world's most dangerous places to exercise the fundamental human right of free expression," the report said. The report is available online at http://cpj.org/reports/2010/09/silence-or-death-in-mexicos-press.php.

U.S. media have taken notice of the threat to the Mexican press. In an August 16 story, the Los Angeles Times explained that Mexican journalists use the word "narco-censorship" to describe reporters and editors who, "out of fear or caution, are forced to write what the traffickers want them to write, or to simply refrain from publishing the whole truth."

According to the Los Angeles Times, Mexican journalists, especially in the cities of Ciudad Juarez, Durango, and Reynosa, avoid reporting on the specifics of the cartels' drug production, smuggling, organized crime operations, and infiltration of local government because drawing attention to those activities would be likely to draw federal efforts to halt them. Warnings to local media by the drug cartels can come in the form of the disappearance of reporters or a deadly hail of bullets.

The Los Angeles Times reported that in July 2010, four journalists were kidnapped after covering the revelation that the warden of Durango's Gomez Palacio prison had allowed inmates to go out on nighttime killing rampages. The kidnapped reporters were released only when their employers agreed to broadcast videos sent to them by a cartel that purported to show corrupt police officers admitting, at gunpoint, to working for a rival cartel. One of the kidnapped reporters told the Los Angeles Times that over the course of five days he was tortured, beaten with a board, and threatened with "an ugly death."

When traffickers attacked a military garrison in Reynosa with machine guns and hand grenades, part of a larger coordinated attack launched across the country in late March 2010, it made the front page of the Los Angeles Times, but was not reported in the local Reynosa media out of fear of reprisals.

CPJ also reported that bribes can drive coverage, or lack thereof, as much as fear. The organization interviewed journalists in Reynosa who said many reporters take bribes from the drug traffickers to slant their stories or withhold coverage. Stories about kidnappings and extortion are generally considered off-limits.

The situation appeared to be especially desperate in Ciudad Juarez in September 2010, after an intern photographer for local paper El Diario was shot and killed by gunmen when he was leaving a shopping mall at lunchtime on September 16, according to The New York Times on September 20. Another intern was injured in the attack. The following Sunday El Diario published an open letter on its front page under the headline "What Do You Want from Us?" according to the Los Angeles Times blog La Plaza. The letter, according to a translated version on La Plaza, addressed the "Gentlemen of the different organizations that are fighting for the Ciudad Juarez plaza: ... we ask that you explain what it is you want from us, what you'd intend for us to publish or to not publish, so that we know what is expected of us. You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling, despite the fact that we've repeatedly demanded it from them. Because of this, before this undeniable reality, we direct ourselves to you with these questions, because the last thing we want is that another one of our colleagues fall victim to your bullets."

However, the letter was "not a surrender," according to the version on La Plaza, "It also does not signify we're giving up on the work we've been producing. This is about a truce with those who have imposed the force of their law upon this city, so long as the lives are respected of those who dedicate themselves to the task of informing."

The New York Times reported that although the government had condemned the September 16 killing, its investigation had not identified a suspect or motive. "Such investigations have a history of shifting theories and little resolution," the Times reported, adding that the 2008 murder of El Diario's police reporter remains unsolved; the case's lead prosecutor was also killed.

According to the CPJ report, corruption and fear pervade the investigations of crimes against journalists, despite the establishment of a federal special prosecutor's office for investigating such crimes in 2006 under President Vicente Fox. For example, the report highlighted the unsolved 2009 murder of Durango crime reporter Bladimir Antuna García. Juan López Ramírez, the state's lead prosecutor for crimes against journalists, blamed "grand chaos" in the Mexican criminal trial system as the reason so little investigating had been done; no authorities had spoken to witnesses since the day after the murder.

CPJ reported that Víctor Garza Ayala, owner of El Tiempo de Durango, Antuna's principal employer, had another theory for why the investigation had not gone anywhere: state officials "know perfectly well who killed him. They don't need an investigation," he said. "They are either afraid of who did it or they are in business with them."

The situation has become serious enough for the United Nations to send two envoys on an official visit. Following a 15-day trip in August 2010, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion said Mexico requires "urgent attention" because "the full enjoyment of freedom of expression ... is up against serious and diverse obstacles, including most notably the murder of journalists and other very serious acts of violence against those who disseminate information, ideas and opinions, and the widespread impunity in those cases."

According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), on August 17, the U.N. envoys said they support efforts to have crimes against media workers recognized and investigated at a federal level. The CPJ report asserted that the Mexican government has "a federal obligation" to address the problem, citing protections for freedom of expression and the press in the Mexican constitution, as well as the fact that Mexico is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right "to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media," and the American Convention on Human Rights, which not only guarantees rights to free expression but also states that every individual has "the right to simple and prompt recourse ... for protection against acts that violate his fundamental rights." In March 2010, the U.N. Human Rights Committee found that the Mexican government had failed to take effective action to protect the press and bring assailants to justice, CPJ reported.

On August 7, hundreds of reporters marched in Mexico City while thousands more marched elsewhere in the country to protest the ongoing threats against journalism, according to a report on the CBS News website. Marcela Turati, head of an organization formed to assist reporters threatened by organized crime called Journalists on Foot, said the march was "the first march organized by journalists calling for the protection of journalists." CBS News reported that Turati said although the march was "an important first step ... we need more follow-up, more mechanisms to protect journalists."

On August 24, Madrid-based Spanish language news service EFE reported that four media unions, along with magazines and journalism foundations, issued a statement calling on the government to take "forceful" action to end the "atmosphere of affronts and violence" against Mexico's journalists and defend freedom of expression and of the press.

The statement, published in the Mexico City daily La Jornada, said that numerous attacks against journalists have "gone unpunished" and the cases remain "without deep investigations," according to EFE. "Threats, intimidation, kidnappings and attacks on communications media, moreover, have become a common practice, mainly among the security forces and serving politicians," the groups said, while "organized crime, especially, has shown no mercy." The statement was published on behalf of the National Journalists Front for Freedom of Expression, whose members include the National Press Editors Union, the Independent Union of La Jornada Workers, the Notimex Workers Union, and the union that represents workers at Puebla's El Sol newspaper. Contralinea and Zocalo magazines, the CIMAC news agency, the Manuel Buendia Foundation and several attorneys also signed the statement, EFE reported.

Although reporters are often reluctant to report on the cartels' organized crime operations out of fear of drawing federal scrutiny, CPJ said that federal investigators and prosecutors are better prepared and have better resources than local authorities to take on threats to press freedom. A federal solution "offer[s] hope for a more effective response," the report said. "The higher level of scrutiny serves as a check against the corrupting power of criminal organizations." CPJ also claimed that federalization of the problem would send an important message of international accountability. "The more Mexico allows the flow of information to be controlled by drug cartels and dishonest local officials, the more it erodes its status as a reliable global partner," the report said.

CPJ and Mexican press freedom advocates support reforms that would add crimes against free expression to the federal penal code, make federal authorities responsible for investigating and prosecuting attacks on the press, and establish accountability at senior levels of the national government.

In the meantime, CPJ reported November 9 that the Mexican government announced the launch of a program aimed at protecting at-risk journalists. According to CPJ, the Ministry of the Interior said it expects to offer protective measures such as bodyguards, armored cars, or stipends to allow journalists to relocate to other parts of the country, and that although the program will initially use federal police, it will eventually involve state law enforcement. "According to the CPJ, Mexican press groups expressed "considerable skepticism" about the plan, complaining that it "is designed and run entirely by government officials who have no understanding of what it's like to be a journalist in Mexico."

In a 2008 meeting with a delegation from CPJ, President Calderón said "the government agrees with the idea of federalizing crimes against freedom of expression," and pledged to put forward a proposal in the context of a broad constitutional amendment to address the spiral of violence and its effect on civil rights more generally. In spite of promises like Calderón's and increasing international attention, including urgent calls for reform from both advocacy groups and the U.N., investigations and accountability has remained primarily local, CPJ reported.

Legislators themselves pose a central obstacle to a legislative approach to federalization, CPJ reported, because they consider the move politically imprudent. Gerardo Priego Tapia, a former leader of the Congressional committee on press attacks, said that politically powerful state governors, especially in some of the states with the highest levels of anti-press violence, oppose federalization as an infringement on states' rights and their own authority. Priego also said corrupt officials who cooperate with organized crime also fear federalization "because those ties may be exposed."

- PATRICK FILE
SILHA FELLOW AND BULLETIN EDITOR

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on January 6, 2011 2:41 PM.

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