Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Since 2000, over 100 journalists and human rights defenders have been killed in the country. Few of these crimes have been properly investigated or convictions made. There is a perception internationally that these incidents are carried out by drug cartels; this is not necessarily the case. Government corruption is widespread and often the root of suppression of the press.
Article 19 is an international human rights group focused on the defence of the freedom of speech. In March 2014 the home of Dario Ramirez, Director of Article 19 Mexico, was raided. Computers and paperwork containing information about the organization, along with valuables, were taken. This happened just days before the group’s annual report on harassment and violence against journalists was released. I spoke with Article 19 programme officer Sebastián Aguirre.
Was the break in at Dario Ramirez’ house investigated? Do you know who was responsible?
What is important to mention is we have no certainties that the raid or other aggressions against our staff members are directly linked to the work we do. What we have managed to find out from our documentation is that perpetrators against human rights and freedom of expression commit aggressions but make the act appear to be linked to the general violence in Mexico.
There is always the topic of how police investigate in Mexico. There is no scientific policing. Most cases are built on the declaration of witnesses or people involved in the crime. This is a big problem. The murder of journalist Gregorio Jiménez in Veracruz in February this year is an example. All the proof the government put out was that the people detained incriminated themselves. We have found from other cases in Veracruz that the person who investigated those crimes tortured detainees until confession. So the same guy who investigated those crimes, his name is Enoc Maldonado, investigated the murder of Gregorio Jiménez – so what can we expect?
The break in at Dario Ramirez’s house is just one incident, he has also received a death threat no?
A year ago here in the office we received a card in the post threatening the life of Dario and other staff members. All human rights defenders in Mexico and around the world have to assume there is some risk in the work they do. You have to take some measures in your daily life that the general public don’t necessarily normally take.
Obviously reporters are being attacked because of what they are reporting on. What are the principal topics that endanger journalists in Mexico? Is it always individuals targeted, or news organizations too?
The most dangerous one in Mexico is corruption. When you combine organized crime and corruption you are at the highest risk. It depends on the region too. In the South, migration is a hot topic. Many people from Central and South America are going through the border and suffer human rights violations. They can be illegally detained, robbed and perhaps forced to work in labour camps. It is well known but a difficult topic to address given the circumstances.
The three most violent issues we document are murders, disappearances and attacks to media installations with firearms and explosives. For instance there is a newspaper in Torreón, it’s a city in the North of Mexico. They had firearms and explosives shot against their facade for three consecutive days in March last year. We also documented another small newspaper called El Piñero de la Cuenca, which is in the state of Oaxaca. They have been attacked three or four times, one of those was with a molotov bomb.
According to the Article 19 annual report Dissenting in Silence there was a decrease in the number of murders of journalists in Mexico in 2013. But there was a dramatic 59% increase in non-fatal attacks. Why was this the case?
The perpetrators learnt to act differently. The death of a journalist is going to get lots of publicity. Most media organizations are interested in covering the most violent aggressions. Murders, kidnaps and attacks with firearms. But non-violent aggressions allow you to intimidate the journalist into stopping covering the issue. They are not benefiting from killing someone because the global eyes are looking towards them. What they want to do is ultimately silence the journalist.
There were more protests in Mexico City in 2013 where public officials attacked journalists. Was there a particular event that changed this approach in intimidation?
Yes, Mexico City is the place where we register the most number of aggressions. Often they happen during public protests. This is because the police lack established protocols and are not well-prepared.
Violence during marches and protests allow congress to pass very strict laws that limit the right to protest. They say each march should be in a specific public space and at specific times. They put restrictions like you should notify the government in order to have a march. What we are seeing is the government are taking violent marches as a way to say, well we need to limit the right to protest instead of just arresting those who are committing the violent acts.
There is one case that exemplifies this situation. There was this famous documentarian filming a man being arrested in La Alameda Plaza, here in Mexico City. The policeman approaches him and says ‘you can not film that’. He responds saying ‘why? It’s a public place and you are a public official.’ The policeman tried to arrest him so the director asks him ‘Do you know what freedom of expression is in this country?’ The policeman responses by saying ‘no I don’t but we’ll see it with a judge.’
In these non-fatal attacks most of the assailants have been identified as public officials. Are many of these attacks reported to the police and then investigated?
There is a federal special prosecutor against crimes of freedom of expression. Its called FEADLE. It is supposed to investigate crimes where local officials are involved. This investigator has existed for six years and has only one case that was sentenced. Very few cases actually go to trial because the crime is not investigated properly, by both the local and federal prosecutors.
If the journalist denounces the attack then he will be intimated and suffer more aggressions. Many journalists are afraid of that. Some journalists are freelancers and the media organization won’t back them up. It’s very expensive to hire a lawyer and it takes a lot of time because they have to denounce it in the public ministry and the human rights commission.
The slow moving bureaucracy and widespread corruption make it appear relatively easy for a public official to get away with intimidating a journalist.
Yes, that’s a way of allowing further aggressions to occur. Because if you don’t set an example of sentencing a public official for violating a journalists right to freedom of expression you’re sending the message that nothing is going to happen to you. Veracruz is the biggest example. There, 11 journalists have been murdered since 2010. There has never been satisfactory condemnation. They always find a scapegoat. A lot of the cases are dismissed because the investigation is not done in due process. The impunity allows the cycle of violence to continue.
What measures have the Mexico government taken in recent years to protect journalists from being attacked? Have these measures been effective?
That’s one of the most worrying things. If you had asked me that six years ago I would have said ‘Well there in no mechanism to protect journalists.’ But now there is federal protection for human rights defenders and journalists. We have a special prosecutor who supposedly investigates crimes against freedom of expression. They have money, they have the legal resources but yet the situation has not improved. They have a big budget of around 200 million pesos. Yet there are no real results. Journalists are not safer and crimes are not properly investigated.
What impact have these attacks had on the freedom of the press in Mexico? Many journalists must self-censor and not report on corruption and human rights abuses?
There are cases in Mexico where there is absolute silence. Tamaulipas is one of them. For the last decade it has been a very violent place but if you pick up the newspaper you won’t see any reporting on drug cartels clashing or criticism of the government. We did an analysis of the front pages of the most important newspapers during President Peña Nieto’s first year in power. We found the coverage of violence decreased compared to previous years. More prominence was given to football and economics. The number of murders in Mexico did not decrease but the amount of media information about did. A lot of money goes to newspapers from public spending on publicity but there is no proper guidelines of how that money should be spent. So obviously they will put money towards those newspapers that are not critical of the government.
In the case of Jaime González, a journalist from Ojinaga, Chihuahua, who was shot 18 times, it is alleged that he was murdered because he didn’t report on certain organized crime. How could this be the case? Was his murderer found?
This is the thing. Journalists find themselves in the crossfire between different organized crime groups, or sometimes between different political groups. Often used as a sort of spokesman. So if the body of someone is found on the street with a message, they would take a picture and publish it. Now if another body from a different organization appears with a message they want the same public space. In a way they are sort of demanding their right to reply. So this is the dynamic at play. Journalists have to be very careful about what words they are publishing and how they address topics. Some journalists reproduce the language of drug cartels. But that endangers them because by using their language that also involves them. In a way reproducing their messages.
Joseph McAlpine is a broadcast producer and director based in the US. Find him on Tumblr. Sebastián Aguirre is programme officer at Article 19 Mexico.