Mexico’s new government should make press freedom a priority  

Mexico’s new government should make press freedom a priority   
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Early last month, Mexican journalist Rubén Pat sent a Whatsapp message: "I think I need to leave Playa del Carmen for a while," he wrote to a colleague of mine at the Committee to Protect Journalists. One of his coworkers, José Guadalupe Chan Dzib, had just been murdered in murky circumstances in a bar after receiving threats. Pat himself had received threats in the comment section of an article he had written. ”No one [here can] guarantees my safety.”

Pat founded and owned Semanario Playa News, a small news site based in the popular resort city of Playa del Carmen; it published stories about crime, accidents, and local politics. He worked there with Chan Dzib and one other reporter. After receiving his message, we worked quickly to help facilitate Pat’s entry into Mexico’s federal protection agency, which gave him a panic button, and was set to conduct a risk evaluation. But, before that happened, he was shot and killed on July 24 in a bar near his home in Playa del Carmen.

Mexico is the deadliest country in the hemisphere for journalists, and it competes for ignominious title of deadliest in the world. On July 1, leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador won the Mexican presidency by a landslide. His party swept through with absolute majorities in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, as well as a majority of state legislatures and several state governorships. López Obrador has an unprecedented mandate to reshape Mexican government. He should use this power to confront Mexico’s press freedom crisis head on.

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So far this year, seven journalists have been killed in Mexico. In at least two cases, we’ve confirmed that they were murdered in direct reprisal for their work. The reporters most at risk live outside the capital city and often work for small outlets, like Pat and Dzib. Many of the attacks come from government officials at the state or local level, and impunity is rife. In Mexico, the vast majority of people who kill journalists are never convicted. When they get away with the crime, it only encourages more violence.

 

On paper, the laws are fairly progressive. Mexico has a protection agency where the federal government provides assistance to journalists facing immediate threats, sometimes relocating them to safer areas within the country. Mexico also has a specialized prosecutor to investigate crimes against journalists, in an attempt to solve these cases and bring the perpetrators to justice. In practice, however, a failure of political will has often undermined the functioning of these entities. While there has been improvement in protection in recent years, funding for the protection agency continues to be an issue, and there is concern that it could run out this fall. The murder of Pat has also raised questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of its risk evaluations.

During the campaign López Obrador did not have much to say about press freedom, and his transition team has so far made few allusions to the issue. Despite the fact that Mexico—a democracy and middle income country—often tops the list for reporters murdered outside of a war zone, the question of press freedom never came up during the presidential debates. Yet López Obrador’s party has strong human rights defenders, and his campaign promises to combat corruption and tackle poverty hinge on ensuring that people can speak and report freely on these issues. CPJ has recorded at least 16 journalists who covered corruption and were murdered in direct reprisal for their work, since CPJ began recording cases in 1992.

There are some immediate solutions to the press freedom crisis in Mexico. López Obrador could start by ensuring that the protection agency is adequately funded and that it can conduct rapid and efficient risk evaluations, to prevent cases like Pat from ever happening again.

He can strengthen federal prosecution of crimes against journalists, rather than leaving these investigations up to the states. He will need to tackle difficult issues around government advertising in media outlets—often a tool that politicians have used to leverage positive coverage—and a powerful surveillance apparatus. Fortunately, a report released by the special rapporteurs for free expression at the United Nations and the Inter-American Human Rights Commissions sets out a blueprint for improving press freedom.

Violence against journalists has become endemic in Mexico, and no government will be able to tackle the problem overnight. It cannot, however, be ignored by the incoming administration as a mere fact of life. López Obrador has promised to revitalize Mexico’s democracy. This is only possible if journalists are able to report news about crime, corruption, exploitation of migrants, and political collusion with organized crime. The new administration should use its strong mandate to finally break the cycle of violence and impunity that has plagued journalism in Mexico for decades.

Alexandra Ellerbeck is the North America Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide and defends the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.