Violence censors journalists in Mexico

This is a version of an article which appeared in Press Gazette last month.

While traveling home through Pánuco, Veracruz with his 16 year old son in late January this year, Octavio Soto Torres, journalist and director of the Mexican daily Voces de Veracruz, was shot at by four masked gunmen. This was just the latest in the ongoing litany of attacks against journalists in Mexico. Torres, who escaped alive, is known for his harsh criticism of local authorities.

As Mexico continues its transition towards a real democracy and the administration of President Felipe Calderon ups its fights against narco-traffick and organized crime in the country, journalists who cover politics, drugs and crime take huge risks. Attacks take place nearly every week and few are ever investigated, according to NGOs monitoring freedom of expression issues in the country.

Although fewer journalists were murdered in Mexico last year than during 2006, the levels of violence and intimidation against them have increased, according to the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) and Mexico’s own National Human Rights Commission.

So what are editors and journalists doing to avoid serious harm? Mostly nothing – literally.
“I go around the country and journalists tell me they don’t cover things like this and have closed down the office in charge of police issues,” says Dario Ramirez, head of Article 19’s programme in Mexico.

In May last year, Cambio in the Northern State of Sonora closed its doors after two grenade attacks and what its editor said was a failure on the part of the Government to protect its 250 employees. In October, journalists of the Oaxacan newspaper “El Imparcial del Istmo” resigned out of fear for their lives following the killing of three of the newspaper’s employees and repeated threats after the newspaper reported the finding of a grave containing seven corpses.

In February 2006, the offices of El Mañana newspaper in Nuevo Laredo were attacked by men wielding grenades and assault rifles. A reporter was left paralyzed and the paper later announced that it would cease producing investigative reports on drug trafficking.

Much of the time, reporters don’t put their names to articles. But on a wider scale, violence against journalists has led to a widely used policy of self-censorship – a policy that was endorsed by the Attorney General of Mexico, Eduardo Medina Mora last year acknowledging the Government’s failure to address the problem and provide some form of protection for journalists by investigating crimes against them.

Leonarda Reyes, director of the Centre for Journalism and Pubic Ethics (CEPET) in Guadalajara, says: “Radio stations, newspapers and of course television news have stopped actively covering security and things linked to that issue and now only publish what is said in press conferences and press releases.”

Although she acknowledged the grave implications of such a policy for freedom of expression and information in Mexico, Reyes said that it was completely understandable. Neither the media nor reporters can solve a problem that corresponds to corruption within the police force across the country and Mexico’s violent drug wars, she says.

The pressure on journalists from corrupt state officials and drug-crime networks as well as very low wages makes it tempting for reporters to collude with the darker forces at work. Experts hint that some journalists are not targeted for their work, but as a result of personal grudges and for taking payoffs from dangerous types. If you can’t beat them, join them.

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