Friday, May 18, 2012

Freedom of Expression in Mexico Threatened as Journalists are Systematically Targeted

by Moravia de la O, WFP Mexico

This past Sunday, authorities found journalist Rene Orta Salgado’s body in the trunk of his car in the city of Cuernavaca, Morelos. The day before, his family had reported the former correspondent for the daily El Sol de Cuernavaca as missing, after the 43 year old did not make it home that night.

Ten days earlier, on World Press Freedom Day, the bodies of Gabriel Huge, Guillermo Luna, Esteban Rodriguez, and Irasema Becerra were recovered inside plastic bags in Boca del Rio, Veracruz. Huge and Luna were reporters for local news agency VeracruzNews and had only just returned to the state after leaving it in 2011 because of security concerns. Rodriguez was a cameraman for the local TV Azteca affiliate and a photographer for local newspaper Diario AZ. Becerra worked as an administrator at El Dictamen, another local daily.

On April 28, police found Regina Martinez, correspondent for the magazine Proceso, dead in the bathroom of her home in Xalapa, Veracruz. She had been beaten and choked to death. Martinez had a long and respected career as an investigative reporter whose work chronicled the rising wave of crime, drug trafficking, and corruption in the state of Veracruz.

Unfortunately, these deaths are nothing new in Mexico where the human rights crisis brought on by the U.S.-backed military strategy to counter drug trafficking has hit members of the media particularly hard. In 2011 alone, 10 journalists were killed in Mexico, prompting the International Press Institute to label the country as the deadliest place in the world to practice journalism. The state of Veracruz in particular, where in the last 12 months at least 9 media members have been killed, is number one in the country in aggressions against reporters.

Since 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon began this so-called drug war, nearly 45 members of the media have been killed and over 500 complaints of human rights violations against journalists have been filed with the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH in Spanish). Based on this, the CNDH has identified a systematic pattern of violations against journalists embodied in the state’s failure to prevent aggressions against the press and to procure justice when these aggressions do happen.

In fact, the state is not only unable and unwilling to guarantee the lives of journalists as they go about their profession, but in the majority of cases security forces are behind these attacks against the press. According to a soon-to-be-released report by Article 19, an international watchdog organization that seeks to ensure freedom of expression around the world, state actors are responsible for one in every three assaults against members of the media in Mexico. Since 2007, the U.S. government has allocated over $1.6 billion USD in funding to support Mexico’s assault against organized criminal groups through the Merida Initiative. A significant portion of these funds have gone to equipping and training the very security forces responsible for these attacks against the media.

And as the CNDH found, even when the authorities are not directly responsible for these attacks, they are in collusion with organized crime and fail to investigate transgression against the media. This is par for the course in Mexico, where 98% of crimes remain in impunity.

Fortunately, the Mexican Congress took steps on April 30, 2012 to protect journalists by unanimously passing the Law for a Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. The new law creates a framework for local and federal authorities to cooperate in the implementation of protective measures for human rights defenders and journalists whose work puts them at risk.

However, the overall context of impunity and the systematic targeting of the members of the press in Mexico continue to be particularly worrisome as more and more media outlets censor themselves in order to avoid attacks. As Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, recently stated: “the recent killing of four press workers in Veracruz underscores the dire need for concrete steps to be taken to guarantee the safety of journalists and put an end to impunity.” Democracies need a vibrant public dialogue spurred on by the media. Thus, the context in Mexico represents an existential threat to freedom of expression and, by extension, democracy.

Given this reality, the U.S. government needs to end all Merida Initiative and military funding to Mexico immediately. In addition, the Obama administration must pressure the Mexican state to ensure that freedom of expression in the country is guaranteed and that mechanisms exist and are implemented to allow journalists to exercise their profession without having to fear for their lives.

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