Mexico has been crowned as the deadliest country in the world for those exercising a fundamental human right: the right to inform. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reports that at least 21 journalists have disappeared in Mexico since 2003, representing the highest figure in the Americas. In 2020 alone, nine journalists were murdered in the country, which rose one spot on the Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists, now occupying sixth place – just below open war zones. A total of 120 journalists have been killed since 2000.
The main targets are those journalists that investigate the links between organised crime and corrupt state officials. They are killed simply for doing their job, that is, lending a voice to those who want fight organised crime, investigating how public money is embezzled by corrupt state officials often colluding with organised crime groups and also spreading awareness about the destruction of the Mexican natural habit by excessive mining carried out by private companies.
A culture of impunity is also to blame for the continued silencing of journalists in Mexico. According to Article 19’s Freedoms in Resistance report 99.75% of crimes against journalists have gone unpunished.
After the death of freelance journalist Anabel Flores Salazar in 2016, the Mexico Institute called on the Mexican government to effectively respond to violence against journalists. The institute highlighted how authorities shirk their responsibility of dealing with these attacks:
“A common response from state and federal judicial authorities to violence against journalists is to either blame the victim for ties to criminals or to allege that the crime had nothing to do with the journalist’s profession but rather with a personal conflict.”
In Flores’s case, the attorney general’s office made a statement accusing Flores of being associated with an organised crime group.
The state authorities in Mexico, instead of upholding the right to inform and supporting, have engaged in both stigmatising discourse around journalists and the criminalisation of journalism. In his September and October 2020 morning press conferences, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador publicised a series of reports in which the press were labelled as “adversaries”, based on whether they covered the president in a “positive” or “negative” light.
Journalists continue to be vulnerable despite of the creation of a Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists (FEADP) in 2006, a Special Prosecutor’s Office on Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) in 2010, and the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in Mexico in 2012. Around 800 cases of crimes against journalists have been put forward and examined by FEADLE over the last few years, out of which only two have ended in conviction.
A serious consequence of this culture of impunity is that journalists, out of fear for their lives, have started self-censoring in order to protect themselves. This in turn has hampered access to correct and reliable information, curbed public debate and jeopardised the well-being of Mexican people. This has also had a devastating impact on the journalism profession. Low wages and threat to safety have led to a declining interest amongst students to pursue journalism.
Since 2010 several Mexican universities – Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla ,Universidad de Morelia and Universidad Veracruzana to name a few – put an end to their journalism programmes due to sharp decline in enrolments. Even now this trend continues, and it seems unlikely that it would change anytime soon. According to María del Carmen Fernández Chapou, a professor in Tecnológico de Monterrey’s Department of Creative Industries, the ever-increasing attacks on journalists have discouraged young people in Mexico from studying journalism. Unless the political and social landscape in Mexico change drastically, journalism would continue to be viewed as “risky profession.”
The problem of impunity is not something that will be solved miraculously in a day and with the current state of affairs, no number of incentives could attract enough students for the revival of the journalism industry. However, to fill this void created by dead journalists and the dearth of students willing to take up journalism as a profession, several collaborative initiatives have been taken.
These initiatives not only highlight and fight against the problem of impunity, but they also seek to make the works of murdered journalists available to the larger population. One such initiative is The Silenced Voices (Voces Silenciadas) podcast created by Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul. It addresses the situation of impunity over the crimes against journalists in Mexico. This podcast preserves the works by the killed journalists and presents their stories as evidence of a systemic problem that stems from the lack of institutional support. In the podcast, there is an underlying concern: how to avoid continuing to silence journalists in Mexico.
Alejandra has also created another platform, Defensores de la Democracia, which has “preserved and catalogued over 12,000 clips from 40 journalists spanning over 30 years, that document a variety of topics throughout the country. The archive aggregates the work of these journalists, highlights the beats they covered and the frequency with which they published, while allowing the user to explore the common characteristics they shared.”
The platform also contains information about the societal contexts of the areas where the journalists worked. These include: names of mayors, political affiliations and parties, murder and other crime rates and poverty levels.
Another such initiative is the Cartel Project which consists of a global network of investigative journalists whose aim is to keep alive the stories of many journalists who lost their lives while investigating organised crime in the state.
These initiatives provide a glimmer of hope at a dark time for Mexico. Freedom of expression is core tenet of a democracy and international collaboration is needed to win the fight against impunity for crimes committed against journalists in Mexico.