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Dying for a Story: How Impunity and Violence against Mexican Journalists are Weakening the Country

The Wilson Center and WOLA were pleased to host experts and courageous Mexican journalists to discuss their work and the difficulties and risks they and their colleagues face.

Date & Time

Jun. 28, 2017
9:00am – 12:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Mexico has faced significant threats and violence from organized crime over the last decade. The human toll and tragedy of this violence is directly impacting journalists as well, leading to self-censorship, under-reporting of organized crime, and the corruption and state complicity that comes with it. Journalists have been killed, injured, and threatened as they seek to investigate and report on what is happening, and dozens of media outlets have been forced to close in the last few years. According to Article 19, eleven journalists were killed in 2016 and six so far in 2017 including Javier Valdez, an internationally recognized journalist from Sinaloa’s RíoDoce, on May 15th.

In 2012, the United States supported the legislative framework that established Mexico’s National Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. Through USAID, the United States has continued to support the Protection Mechanism and other programs to benefit journalists and defenders in Mexico. Nevertheless, the recent cases demonstrate that these mechanisms have not yet been effective. The Mexican government has expressed concern about the problem and promised justice, but investigations and prosecutions of those responsible have been very few. In the process, freedom of information, freedom of the press, the rule of law, and democratic governance have been weakened.

The Wilson Center convened a discussion with experts and courageous Mexican journalists to hear about their work and the difficulties and risks they and their colleagues face. They were joined by Ana Cristina Ruelas, the Director of Article 19’s office for Mexico and Central America, Azam Ahmed, the New York Times' Bureau Chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and Jennifer Clement, the President of PEN International, who presented an overview of attacks and aggressions against journalists in Mexico and the Mexican government’s response to this concerning situation.

Organized by the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America

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Key Quotes:

Duncan Wood

“One of the standard response[s] that we hear from authorities when we talk about violence against journalists and threats against journalists is that violence is bad in general… I’ve heard it many times that the murder of any citizen is something that we want to eliminate. But the fact is… we all know violence against journalists has brought us a cycle and democratic implications.”

“We live in a time where attacks on the free media — not just in Mexico, as I said, [but] around the world and even, of course, here, in the United States of America — have become more and more common. We were saddened and outraged by the events that have brought this event to pass.”

“Let me just say that we invited the government of Mexico to participate in this event today. We believe very much in open dialogue and open forums. They declined to participate at this particular point, but I’d like to emphasize that, of course, the opportunity is there for them to participate at a later date.”

Eric L. Olson

“Government advertising, government-funded journalism… are still a major problem across Mexico, and the seeming inability of state and federal prosecutors to bring an end to these practices — that are clearly in violation of the law — is disturbing, to say the least.”

“While violence against journalism has always been an issue… it’s become particularly acute in recent years, with the rise of violent criminal organizations that have either dictated coverage or forced self-censorship, and even brought about the demise of valuable media outlets.”

“Part of what really got us motivated at this time was the assassination of Javier Valdez, the co-founder of Ríodoce, who bravely and tirelessly reported on organized crime and government complicity in the deeply troubled state of Sinaloa.”

Maureen Meyer

“We have representatives of organizations and journalists here, but [I] did want to… highlight, for example, the creation of Periodistas de a Pie in 2007, which was really based on wanting journalists, themselves, to organize to both help professionalize and improve the quality of journalism, but also working on self-care issues and protection.”

“WOLA, as an organization, has worked many years on the situation of human rights defenders and journalists in Mexico. We’ve followed a lot the mechanism for protection, what is happening in Mexico… And we deal a lot with numbers… There are lots of stories behind those numbers.”

Ana Cristina Ruelas (original Spanish):

“En mi país quienes ejercen la libertad de expresión tienen que enfrentarse en un terreno que de facto los pone en desventaja con su adversario. La prensa se enfrenta a un enemigo que busca a toda costa ejercer un control efectivo de la información que llega a la sociedad.”

“In my country, those who exercise freedom of expression have to face an environment that automatically puts them in disadvantage with their adversary [the government]. The press has to face an enemy that searches at all costs to exert an effective control over the information that reaches society.”

“En 2017 van seis periodistas asesinados y uno desaparecido, a pesar de que el gobierno ha señalado que encontró los restos de Salvador Adame esta semana. Se ha solicitado un peritaje independiente antes de cerrar la investigación porque la familia considera que no existen pruebas suficientes para decir que es Salvador.”

“So far in 2017, six journalists have been murdered and one has disappeared, despite the fact that the Mexican government indicated that they have found Salvador Adame’s remains this week. An independent medical assessment has been requested before closing the investigation, since Adame’s family believes there is not enough evidence to be sure the remains are his.”

“Cada periodista asesinado se ha convertido en un mensaje intimidatorio para aquellos que buscan seguir informando. Los mensajeros se convierten en el mensaje y el mensaje original muere. ¿Alguno de ustedes sabe que estaba investigando Miroslava Breach o Cecilio Pineda? Conocen sus nombres, pero poco sabemos de que estaban informado. Eso es el efecto de la muerte de un periodista.”

“Each murdered journalist has come to represent an intimidating message for those who seek to keep informing. The messengers have now become the message and the original message has died. Do any of you know what Miroslava Breach or Cecilio Pineda were investigating? You know their names, but we know little of what they were reporting. That is the effect of a journalist’s death.” 

“No habrá un combate decidido a la impunidad mientras el estado no se investigue a sí mismo. El Estado tiene que reconocer que es el propio Estado quien está agrediendo a la prensa. El sistema de protección a periodistas no va a funcionar si no se considera que el combate a la impunidad es la forma más poderosa de proteger.” 

“There will not be a decisive fight against impunity as long as the State does not investigate itself. The State needs to recognize that the State itself is the one attacking the press. The protection mechanism for journalists will not work if the fight against impunity is not considered as the most powerful way to protect them.”

Azam Ahmed

“When it comes to killing journalists… the issue is… the central issue that plagues Mexico on so many different fronts, and it’s impunity. You kill a journalist, the chances are, you’re not going to get caught. You’re not going to be prosecuted or pursued. There’s probably not even going to be a real investigation.”

“It is extremely dangerous — or, in cases, not even possible — to exercise freedom of expression. Number one, because of the violence, but also — and, in some ways, more perversely — because of the financing. Most media rely on government funding, which means they don’t need to kill you; they just need to call your boss’s boss, and tell him that story shouldn’t run.”

“If you look at the threats against journalists… more often they come from the state than from narcotraffickers, organized crime… Nobody expects narcotraffickers to behave well; they’re cartel members. But your own government being more culpable for threatening freedom of expression is pretty exceptional.”

Jennifer Clement

“The law that made killing a journalist in Mexico a federal crime was finally approved in 2012, but sadly, at this moment, it is only a symbolic change. Since then, more journalists have been killed, more newspapers have closed down, and there are whole areas of Mexico where we have no idea what is going on… We have yet to see the strength and expertise of the Mexican government to act or react.”

“My sense is that the federal government is unable to control the state governments, that the state governments are… in many cases, under threat or in collusion with the cartels, which are not just drug cartels anymore. They’re mafias that are dealing in extortion and human-trafficking and all kinds of different kinds of crime.”

“Just as there’s nobody in jail for having killed a journalist, there’s also no politician in jail. And goodness knows, there are many, many Mexican politicians who should be in jail… That’s another message that needs to be underscored.”

Adela Navarro (original Spanish)

“Vivimos en un país donde si matas a un periodista, no te van a meter a la cárcel… y ese es el mensaje que les dice, ‘Pues, puedes matar a un periodista.'”

“We live in a country where, if you kill a journalist, they won´t put you in prison… and that is the message that tells them, ´Well, you can kill a journalist.'"

"No tenemos una protección en nuestro país. Hay mucha impunidad, no hay un estado de derecho y más allá de las amenazas del narcotráfico y el crimen organizado, están las presiones gubernamentales.”

“We do not have protection in our country. There is a lot of impunity, there is no rule of law, and in addition to the threats of drug-traffickers and organized crime, there are the government pressures.”

“Deberíamos de tener los periodistas, como cualquier mexicano, la garantía y la seguridad parar ejercer una profesión en nuestro país… El Gobierno de la República debería concentrarse en ello.”

“As journalists, we should have, as any Mexican, the guarantee and security to be able to do our job in our country… the government should concentrate on that.”

Ismael Bojorquez   (original Spanish):  

“Han pasado 44 días del crimen [asesinato del periodista Javier Valdez] y no sabemos absolutamente nada.”

“It has been 44 days [since the murder of journalist Javier Valdez] and we know absolutely nothing.”

“Esa impunidad con el que se desarrollan las relaciones entre las bandas de narcotráfico y la clase política hacen que los periodistas trabajemos en el desamparo, porque quienes tiene la obligación de protegernos son parte del problema.”

“This impunity that exists in the relationships between drug-trafficking gangs and the political class results in the fact that we journalists have to work isolated, because those who have the obligation to protect us are part of the problem.”

“La Fiscalía no ha funcionado y los mecanismos de protección tampoco, porque si hubieran funcionado, no tuviéramos tantos periodistas muertos.”

“The Special Prosecution Office has not worked and neither have the protection mechanisms, because if they would have worked, we would not have so many dead journalists.”

“Una línea fundamental para terminar con todo esto es el combate a la impunidad… Mientras no se castigue al que ordena el crimen de un periodista, esto va a seguir ocurriendo y no va a ver mecanismos de protección que nos cuide, y que nos garantice que vamos a seguir viviendo y trabajando.”

“A fundamental line of action to end all of this is fighting impunity… As long as the person who orders a crime against a journalist goes unpunished, this will continue happening, and there will be no protection mechanism that will be able to take care of us and guarantee that we will be able to continue living and working.”

Norma Trujillo (original Spanish)

“Los periodistas enfrentamos la violencia económica e institucional de nuestros patrones, los dueños de medios de comunicación, y del estado [Veracruz], que no aplica la Ley Federal del Trabajo… La mayoría debemos trabajar en al menos dos medios de comunicación, jornadas que van de diez a doce horas diarias…”

“As journalists, we face economic and institutional violence from our bosses, the owners of media, and the state [of Veracruz], which does not enforce the Federal Labor Law… the majority of us have to work in at least two media outlets, and work from 10 to 12 hours a day…”

“Tan solo en el ejercicio del año 2014, de un presupuesto de 20 millones de pesos [en el estado de Veracruz], solo 800 mil fueron para protección a periodistas; es decir, el cuatro por ciento de los recursos. El resto fue ocupado para pagos de salarios de personal… Con todo esto, siguieron ocurriendo más crímenes.”

 “Just in the 2014 fiscal year, from a 20-million-peso-budget [in the state of Veracruz], only 800,000 were destined to the protection of journalists; in other words, 4% of all resources.  The rest was used to pay employee salaries… With this, more crimes continued to happen.”

 "Mientras no se ejecuten estas investigaciones, ni se dé con algún responsable de los crímenes, la impunidad continuará y el mecanismo se seguirá llenando de solicitudes de periodistas que han sido amenazados.”

"As long as these investigations are not followed through or leads to the person responsible for these crimes, impunity will continue, and this mechanism will continue to be filled with petitions from journalists that have been threatened.”

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