Mexico: Where reporting the truth can be fatal

The case of Valentin Valdes Espinosa, a 29-year-old journalist for the Zócalo de Saltillo newspaper, is typical of how Mexican drug cartels deal with journalists who dig too deep.

He was on an assignment in Saltillo, the largest city in the northern state of Coahuila, when he was pulled over by a gang of men driving SUVs on the night 6 January 2010.

Espinosa, who was kidnapped along with two other colleagues on the paper, had spent the previous month reporting on the capture of a local crime boss at the city’s Hotel Marbella.

While the two other men – including an unnamed reporter – were let go, Espinosa’s body was discovered in front of the hotel the following morning.

He had been shot several times, his arms and legs had been bound, and his body showed evidence of torture. A handwritten message found alongside his body read: “This is going to happen to those who don’t understand. The message is for everyone.”

As Britain’s journalists wring their hands over the chilling effect of Leveson and the spectre of statutory regulation, spare a thought for your colleagues in Mexico.

An estimated 50,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon launched his war against the country’s drug cartels in 2006, including the assassination of 39 journalists.

Five alone were murdered by organised crime gangs between 28 April to 14 June this year.

If Espinosa’s killing was typical of the modus operandi of Mexico’s drug cartels then so too, sadly, was the reaction of his editor Sergio Cisneros.

“We are not going to get mixed up in it,” he told the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I don’t believe there will be results, so why push?”

'A great deal of unnecessary suffering and loss of life'

It might sound defeatist to some, but in a country where attacks against journalists routinely go unpunished Cisnero’s despondency is understandable.

This impunity has been exposed in a new report on the violence against Mexico’s press by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

In 2006, for example, the Mexican government created the “Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crime Against Free Expression” (FEADLE), which was designed to offer more protection for journalists in the wake of Calderon’s drugs war.

In the six years of its existence it has secured just one conviction. Likewise, a “State Commission for the Defence of Journalists” in the east of the country received 13.7m pesos in funding, but has seen six journalists killed in the past six months and at least 13 others go into exile.

The report does offer a few reasons for hope. One major obstacle at the moment is that crimes against journalists mostly fall under the control of often corrupt local and state authorities, which is one of the reasons why FEADLE has been so ineffective.

On 6 January 2012, an amendment to the country’s constitution was approved that finally gave federal authorities the power to investigate crimes against freedom of expression.

Three weeks later the president enacted the decree on the “Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists”, providing a new fund to introduce security measures such as the evacuation of journalists from regions under threat and home protection for at-risk media workers.

The problem, say critics, is that the delay in introducing any of the measures has “led to a great deal of unnecessary suffering and loss of life”, and with the law being passed during an election year further delays are anticipated.

What the report pinpoints as the Mexican government’s “biggest shortcoming” in the protection of journalists is the fact that none of the measures “address the main cause for attacks against journalists and the media: the fact that assailants are not brought to justice and that the resultant impunity only perpetuates such crimes”.

It adds: “While measures aimed at anticipating or reacting to attacks have been considered, the project fails to specify any concrete solutions aimed at ensuring attacks come to an end.”

'There is very little tolerance for scrutiny'

Of more importance, perhaps, is that it fails to address the sobering fact that local, state and federal authorities are behind most of the attacks on the media.

WNA-IFRA quotes research showing that 54 per cent of attacks on the media were carried out by government employees, with the state police responsible for half of those, followed by the military, local police and federal police.

While these attacks rarely involve murders or kidnappings, they do include physical assaults, threats and intimidation through criminal defamation legislation.

They most often occur when journalists seek to expose corruption and links between authorities and criminal syndicates.

“There is very little tolerance for scrutiny, a by-product of 71 years of the authoritarianism and corruption in the regimes of the Institutional Revolutionary Party,” according to the report.

Journalist Marco Lara Khlar told researchers: “At every level, the authorities use harassment, intimidation, direct censorship and co-opting strategies to drown any criticism.”

In the state of Chiapas, said one Mexican correspondent, the “governor rewards and punishes the media through the arbitrary allocation of official advertising contracts”.

“He also gives prizes and gifts to journalists who are close to the governing party, and launches defamation campaigns to discredit those who criticise him.”

This is known as the practice of “chayote”, whereby journalists receive financial compensation in return for favourable coverage.

Chayote, an alien concept to most journalists, highlights another very simple reason why the Mexican press is in such disarray: most of them are poorly paid.

“The average journalist earns less than $400 a month, while some of them are not even paid, or only paid in kind,” said Khlar.

“With this little amount, they have to cover their transportation, communication, security needs and also support their family.

“If the media themselves are sending the message to the authorities, and to the drug trafficking cartels that journalists are dispensable and a source of cheap labour, how can one begin to protect them?”

'Mexican society is in need of brave and honest journalists'

Another problem is that some newspaper offices have allegedly been infiltrated by drug cartels.

When WAN-IFRA was on its fact-finding mission in the country it was warned to “avoid visiting certain provincial newspapers as it was impossible to guarantee that their staff had not been infiltrated”.

It is from this gloom that a few heroic figures like Anabel Hernández have emerged. Last week the Mexican journalist was awarded WAN-IFRA’s “Golden Pen of Freedom”.

On 1 December 2010 she exposed officials at the Ministry of Public Security’s relationship with kidnappers and the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful cartel in the world according to the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration.

Since that day she has had a price on her head but has refused to be silenced.

In her acceptance speech she told the audience: “Today, Mexican society is in need of brave and honest journalists who are ready to fight and I believe that the international community and world media share this responsibility to deeply consider the reality of the situation in Mexico and assist us in achieving our goals.

“Without freedom of expression, there is no possibility of justice or democracy. I will fight until my  last breath, even if it is a small example, so that as journalists we are not brought to our knees before the drug state.”

Without that help – and despite the bravery of people like Hernandez – self-censorship remains a day-to-day reality in the Mexican press.

On 13 May 2012, the El Manana newspaper published this editorial: “(…) we appeal to the public for their understanding as for a certain amount of time, as deemed necessary, we will refrain from publishing any information that related to the violent conflict plaguing our city and other parts of the country (…)

“[We have taken this decision] because of the lack of a proper environment for the free exercise of journalism.”

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