How Mexico’s Journalists Are Failed by the Government

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Mexico has suffered a rash of deadly attacks against journalists, made worse by a report suggesting that some of those killed may have been named on a hit list seen by the government, which did little to protect them.

Six Mexican reporters have been killed in recent weeks, with four deaths in Veracruz, the Gulf state that has seen one of the biggest spikes in violence in recent months. A reporter for Proceso magazine was killed in Xalapa on April 28, days before three photojournalists were found murdered in Boca del Rio, along with the girlfriend of one of the victims. A former reporter, who had left the business several months previously, was murdered in the central state of Morelos, and another was found dead in Sonora, which borders on the US.

The events are even more troubling in light of a report by Proceso, which stated that the federal and state governments were aware of a hit list circulating in Veracruz last year with the names of journalists to be targeted by criminal groups, which may have included the four who were murdered. (The administration of Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte denies knowing of any such list, according to the magazine.) Proceso reported that the Calderon administration only passed the warning on to TV giant Televisa, which moved its correspondent out of the state.

The recent killings continue an alarming trend in Mexico, which is among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. According to the National Human Rights Commission, 81 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000. Most of these deaths took place during the Calderon presidency, accompanying an nationwide explosion of violence linked to organized crime. In addition to the killings, threats are common, and criminal groups have frequently trained their weapons on the media as a way to send a message.

Criminal groups target reporters for a number of reasons. Often, it is simply retribution for publishing information about government investigations or official corruption which damages their business. Because attacks on journalists receive so much publicity, they have a chilling effect on the population at large, discouraging citizens from reporting criminal activity. Some reporters may also be attacked because they receive money from criminal groups, making them a target for rivals.

This recent spate of killings has provoked renewed calls for a more robust government response to the attacks. One suggestion is to make all killings of journalists into federal cases, which means they would be dealt with by investigative teams considered to be more competent than the state officials, who deal with most murders. Moreover, as Ivan Baez of Article 19 pointed out, because state-level officials are often suspected of involvement in crimes against journalists, tasking them with investigating these crimes could stand in the way of justice.

More recently, various politicians have called upon Calderon to enact a law to protect rights activists and journalists that was passed by both houses of Congress earlier this year, and is currently stuck in limbo. There seems to be little good reason for Calderon’s inaction. The law would offer threatened activists and journalists police protection and bodyguards, armored cars, bullet-proof vests, and temporary relocation.

However, it’s also worth noting that the absence of robust legislation is not the biggest problem here. The government created a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists under President Vicente Fox, but the office is widely viewed as ineffectual if not useless, and attacks on reporters have only grown more frequent since its creation.

More troubling than Calderon’s failure to enact the law is what it represents: a lack of genuine interest in protecting journalists, evident across the country at every level of government. (However, journalists are not alone in this: the fact that roughly 80 percent of all murders go unsolved demonstrates a lack of interest in justice for victims, of whatever profession.) As the failure of the special prosecutor demonstrates, merely adding new agencies into the mix is unlikely to change anything.

Moreover, while the plan to give investigators an added push and extra resources to track down those who attack journalists is laudable, it’s worth noting that the authorities already have all of the legal tools they need to do this. Anyone convicted of murder faces a lengthy prison sentence in Mexico. If the local authorities made a point of concentrating their resources disproportionately on those who attack reporters, making the conviction rate in such case higher, than criminal groups facing a journalistic nuisance might think twice before resorting to violence.

That is, after all, the biggest reason that attacks on journalists, even when they publish damning information about criminal operations, are so rare in more developed countries: such crimes place a great deal of pressure on the government to solve them, which, in turn, makes a conviction more likely still. In short, it’s not in criminals’ interest to target reporters.

For anyone interested in the integrity of journalism in Mexico and around Latin America, that reorganization of the prevailing incentives needs to be the goal. As analysts from organizations ranging from Amnesty International to Article 19 have pointed out, new legislation can help achieve that objective, but it will not be enough on its own.

Image, above, shows protests over the death of Proceso reporter Regina Martinez.

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