Mexico needs legislation to ensure press freedom

Joel Simon and Carlos Lauria
Published in San Antonio Express-News
July 20, 2007

The recent decision by the San Antonio Express-News to temporarily remove its border correspondent from its Laredo bureau was a judicious move. The paper temporarily withdrew reporter Mariano Castillo after a U.S. law enforcement source warned that an unspecified American journalist was on the hit list of a Mexican criminal group.

In the current context of rampant violence, the threat must be taken seriously.

Mexico’s powerful drug cartels have repeatedly targeted Mexican journalists, fueling a culture of self-censorship particularly along the border. Despite a constitutional mandate to safeguard freedom of the press, Mexico’s federal government has done little either to protect journalists or ensure the free circulation of information.

The recent threat shows that U.S. journalists are not immune to the dangers of reporting on drug trafficking, but Mexican journalists have borne the brunt of the violence. The number of killings has spiraled as cartels battle it out over lucrative smuggling routes. Mexico now rivals Colombia as the most dangerous place to practice journalism in Latin America.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists research, 18 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, six of them in direct reprisal for their work. Meanwhile, five journalists have gone missing since 2005. Three of them were covering crime stories.

Though the drug wars are particularly acute along the U.S.-Mexico border, violence has spread to almost every Mexican state in the past year. Organized crime-related executions have increased 10 percent since President Felipe Calderón took office seven months ago, said Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora. This year has been devastating: More than 1,300 people have been killed in drug-related crimes.

One of the most damaging consequences of this climate of terror is the fear it creates among different sectors of Mexican society. Scores of reporters and numerous outlets are engaging in self-censorship for fear of retaliation.

In late May, the Hermosillo-based daily Cambio de Sonora suspended publication after two bomb attacks and repeated threats in a one-month period. In the central state of Michoacán, five dailies abstain from any reporting on crime, the news magazine Proceso reported this week. In the lawless border city of Nuevo Laredo, identifying drug traffickers by name is off-limits.

Sensitive issues such as drug trafficking, crime, corruption, human rights abuses and other problems that affect the daily lives of ordinary people are not being covered. The absence of a profound debate over issues of public interest is seriously affecting the health of Mexico’s democracy.

Although the right to free expression is guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution, thousands of citizens are not able to exercise this right for fear of physical retribution. This unprecedented wave of violence goes beyond the press: It is actually inhibiting the ability of Mexicans to communicate with each other.

The federal government recognized violence against the press as a national problem when it created a special prosecutor’s office to investigate crimes against the media in early 2006. But there have been no successful prosecutions partly because murder and assault are state crimes and the federal government has no jurisdiction to intervene. And recent statements by the prosecutor’s office downplaying the threat to press freedom are deeply discouraging.

President Calderón can help fulfill his constitutional responsibility by proposing legislation making it a federal crime to conspire to deprive Mexicans of their right to freedom of expression. Such legislation would give the federal government the legal tools it needs to protect the work of the press.

Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Carlos Lauría is senior program director.