Reporting in Mexico, a Dangerous Assignment: Murder and Impunity against the Press
Attacks by organized crime and drug traffickers have made Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and along with Colombia, the most dangerous country in Latin America. According to a report released this year by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in the past fifteen years, thirteen journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work, and another fourteen have been killed under unclear circumstances. On April 3, 2008 the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute and the CPJ convened journalists and representatives of both the U.S. and Mexican governments to discuss the challenges facing those who report from the front lines of Mexico's war on drugs.
In addressing the CPJ's statistics, Dolia Estévez, Washington Correspondent for Poder, noted the gravity of the situation facing journalists who cover issues of organized crime and drug trafficking throughout the country, but specifically on the U.S.-Mexico border. Here, many reporters have been forced to self-censor their coverage, and sometimes even tailor it to the command of local cartels out of fear of reprisal. She added that a goal of the meeting, part of a larger Mexico Institute initiative on cross-border journalism, is to bring the reality of the attacks against the press and the impunity of those who commit these crimes to the attention of policymakers both in Mexico and in Washington.
Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, emphasized that due to widespread self-censorship, Mexico's constitutional right of freedom of expression is under siege. This has led to an environment where people are ill-informed and unable to communicate with each other. He praised the Mexican government for creating a Special Prosecutor for crimes against journalists in 2006, thereby centralizing relevant information and instilling bureaucratic pressure. However, he pointed out, to date no one has been convicted of a crime against a journalist. Part of the problem, he added, is that Mexico's legal structure makes murder a state crime, baring the federal prosecutor from having any prosecutorial authority.
Border journalists Daniel Rosas, Managing Editor at El Mañana, Jorge Morales Borbón, Assistant Editor of La Crónica, and Cesár René Blanco, Co-Editor of Zeta, agreed that the federal government has an obligation to ensure the safety of journalists. Because crimes are not sufficiently investigated, perpetrators have impunity, and continue to threaten and kill the press without fear of repercussion. They noted that this has changed the image of the reporter along the border, where journalists now wear bullet-proof vests and are trained how to survive a kidnapping. Even so, Morales noted, there needs to be further training. He commented that while it is the government's responsibility to protect journalists, the media must take on some of the responsibility as well by training reporters how to work in wartime conditions, just as U.S. reporters are trained to cover Iraq and other places of conflict.
Carlos Lauría, Senior Americas Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists, emphasized that when organized crime is not fully investigated, it is not only the press that is vulnerable to further attack, but Mexican society as a whole, which goes uninformed of important issues that are affecting people's lives. Cesar René Blanco commented that his newspaper has refused to cease their investigations. Instead, they have changed their practice to omit names from being attributed to articles that cover organized crime or drug trafficking. The paper's determination to continue reporting has given it standing in the community, where often citizens will bring sensitive information to them instead of the police, whom many do not trust.
Leonardo Kourchenko, International News Vice-president, Televisa, pointed to some of the successes in Mexican journalism as a result of the country's transition to democracy. He noted that there is freedom of expression and transparency in all other areas of coverage, and that violence against journalists is the only threat to the profession. Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan added that the press has played and continues to play a key role in the process of democratic consolidation in Mexico. In order to ensure a well functioning democracy, he insisted that the Mexican government cannot leave reporters vulnerable to attacks or accept self-censorship. He highlighted current legislation supported by the Attorney General that seeks to raise the profile of crimes against the press by making any attempt to interfere with the constitutional right to freedom of expression a federal crime.
Ambassador Craig Kelly, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, asserted that diplomats and journalists have the same goals in solidifying democracy. He highlighted that the three goals the United States has for Mexico-- democracy, economic prosperity, and security—are all relevant to the journalistic profession. The freedom of information and expression are essential for democracy to thrive, and critical to maintaining open markets that prevent cronyism and insider deals. He added that the proposed Mérida Initiative would help reduce violence along the border and thereby increase security for journalists in this region.