Obama and Calderón need to address press crisis in Mexico

New York, May 18, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists urges U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón to put Mexico’s press freedom crisis on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting in Washington. CPJ also calls on Calderón to continue to advocate for reforms that will strengthen federal accountability in crimes against freedom of expression. 

Calderón will spend two days in Washington to meet Obama and address a joint meeting of Congress.  

A wave of unprecedented violence related to organized crime has markedly increased the last few years, despite a decision by Calderón to deploy more than 25,000 troops and federal police to fight drug trafficking. Media killings and disappearances have made Mexico one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press, CPJ research shows. 

The effects of violence can be felt on both sides of the border. Widespread self-censorship as a result of fear is preventing the Mexican media from reporting the news and U.S. reporters covering the drug trade have also faced threats and intimidation. Violence has become so pervasive that trafficking organizations now exert effective censorship over key issues that resonate on both sides of the border.

“The level of violence against journalists in Mexico has become an international concern and must be included as part of bilateral discussions,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “While it is up to the Mexican government to address this problem, President Obama should make clear that the U.S. has deep concern about the situation and considers it a priority.” 

Since Calderón took office in December 2006, 20 journalists have been killed in Mexico, at least five in direct reprisal for their work. The situation has been particularly alarming in those areas where powerful drug cartels fight for dominance. The dangerous climate is fostered by a culture of impunity in which 90 percent of deadly anti-press crimes go unsolved, CPJ research shows.

Four journalists have been killed so far in 2010. Victims include reporter Valentín Valdés Espinosa, who was found dead on January 8, in Saltillo, northern Mexico. A reporter with the newspaper Zócalo de Saltillo, Valdés had covered a Mexican army raid in which a leader of the Gulf drug cartel was arrested.

In addition to journalists’ killings, six reporters have gone missing since December 2006. In its special report “The Disappeared,” released in September 2008, CPJ said the tally was nearly unprecedented worldwide. The spike in disappearances may reflect the involvement of local government officials, CPJ reported. Journalists had investigated government corruption and organized crime before they were killed or went missing, according to CPJ research.

In April, CPJ released its annual Impunity Index, a list of countries in which journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes. Mexico is among the 10 worst countries in the world with terms of impunity, CPJ found.

Prompted by the wave of violence, a CPJ delegation met with Calderón in June 2008 in Mexico City. After the meeting, Calderón pledged his commitment to federalize crimes against free expression. The delegation presented him with a set of principles to safeguard expression for all citizens, including journalists, and to make crimes against free expression the responsibility of federal rather than state authorities.

CPJ has vigorously advocated for federal oversight of crimes against the press, saying it would provide Mexican society with a better legal framework for protection of free expression. In response to CPJ’s advocacy, in October 2008, Calderón sent to Congress a proposed constitutional amendment to make a federal offense of any crime related to “violations of society’s fundamental values, national security, human rights, or freedom of expression, or for which their social relevance will transcend the domain of the states.” But these reforms have stalled in Congress.

“Murder and silence are taking a huge toll on the press while undermining Mexican democracy,” said CPJ’s Simon. “Swift actions are needed. President Calderón must uphold his commitment for the protection of freedom of expression by encouraging Congress to pass legislation that will create a system of federal accountability.”