Why Are Journalists Killed In Mexico? Lessons from Veracruz

Monday, December 5, 2016TOPICS: US-Mexico BorderResearchFaculty and Staff

Why are Journalists Killed in Mexico? - 2016 Kroc School Magazine
begin quote… in light of the country’s fragile democratic institutions, investigative reporters have created public accountability for acts of corruption, helping to support civil society in a push for greater transparency.

On July 20, 2016, Pedro Tamayo Rosas was shot to death in Tierra Blanca, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. He became the 76th journalist killed in Mexico since 2004, and the 25th killed in the state of Veracruz since 2010. Those numbers make plain a painful truth: Veracruz is the most dangerous place for journalists in a country that, over the past decade, has been the deadliest worldwide for members of the fourth estate. What is not clear is why this is happening. How do we explain the constant threats Mexico’s journalists face? 

… a detailed examinationof attacks on freedom of expression in Veracruz shows that … we must not assume that reducing the power of drug cartels will automatically create a freer press in Mexico.

At the Trans-Border Institute (TBI), I have been involved with a research project examining that question since 2015. There are two reasons why the answer to that question matters, and why the extinction of independent journalist voices represents a serious threat.

First, in light of the country’s fragile democratic institutions, investigative reporters have created public accountability for acts of corruption, helping to support civil society in a push for greater transparency. Second, as Mexico continues to experience alarming levels of violence brought on by the war on drugs, reporters have borne witness to human rights violations, creating singularly important testimonial accounts of victims’ experiences.

Since 2000, only Iraq and Syria have been more deadly for journalists than Mexico, and neither country has experienced the same sustained levels of violence against reporters. Yet Mexico is not a war zone. It has a democratically elected government, functioning institutions, and is the United States’ third most important trading partner. How then do we understand the unique conditions of this violence against the media? 

The standard perception of attacks on journalists in Mexico is that they are targeted for writing about organized crime and that those responsible for the violence are principally cartel operatives. While this is partly true, a detailed examination of attacks on freedom of expression in Veracruz shows that the situation is not so simple and we must not assume that reducing the power of drug cartels will automatically create a freer press in Mexico. TBI’s research on the situation reveals four key insights.

First, attacks on journalists are about more than the drug war. Entire books, such as Alfredo Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico, have furthered the notion that cartels are the biggest threat to journalists. Yet, of the 186 documented attacks on journalists or media outlets in Veracruz over the past decade, in only 43 of those cases were the reporters working the police beat or covering organized crime. 

Second, those who face the greatest risk are local journalists working for small, regional publications covering corruption, social issues and politics. Just as many reporters were murdered or disappeared while covering narcotrafficking or organized crime (7) as were killed while covering other issues. There were 107 recorded instances of harassment — ranging from threats to assault — for reporters covering non-crime issues compared to only 19 instances for those covering crime of any sort. Troublingly, in 63 of the cases, police or politicians were the aggressors. Those most at risk were local reporters, such as Moises Sánchez Cerezo, whose self-published newspaper contained his own tireless investigations of corruption in Medellín del Bravo. He was murdered in 2015, reportedly by municipal police officers operating on the orders of the mayor, whose malfeasance Sánchez Cerezo had exposed.

Third, when digital tools such as cellphone cameras encourage a proliferation of citizen journalists, there are likely to be more conflicts. A quarter of the documented attacks (including 7 murders) involved photojournalists or those who worked with cameras. Many of those attacks were an attempt to prevent or destroy photography, with police and military particularly resistant to attempts to document abuses. 

Fourth, protecting Mexico’s journalists requires more than just shielding them from organized crime. Because the biggest threat to freedom of expression comes from state actors, anonymity is the greatest risk factor for journalists: there is a much greater cost to persecuting those reporters whose names and work are internationally known. In the short term, then, we can support Mexican journalists by reading and sharing their work. 

To create lasting peace, we must recognize that violence against journalists is the product not simply of a proximate drug war but a longer history of authoritarianism, and that a true solution requires creating an institutional culture that tolerates critical journalism. 

MICHAEL LETTIERI, PHD
is a research associate at the Kroc School’s Trans-Border Institute. He received his doctorate from the University of California, San Diego, and has been a Fulbright fellow and a visiting scholar at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. He works on a broad range of topics connected to Mexican politics and human rights, including violence against women, freedom of the press, authoritarian rule and democratization, and urban development.

Read this article and discover other articles of Kroc Peace Magazine 2016 on ISSUU.

Contact:

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies
krocschool@sandiego.edu
(619) 260-7919

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies

Phone

Contact Us

Phone: (619) 260-7919
Fax: (619) 849-8123
krocschool@sandiego.edu

Map

Visit Campus

KIPJ Room 121
5998 Alcalá Park
San Diego, CA 92110