Open government is unsustainable without a free press

This week, as he takes office as lead chair of the Open Government Partnership, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto will reaffirm the commitment of the more than 60 countries that make up this multilateral initiative, which seeks to enhance governance, promote citizen participation, and improve governments’ accountability to citizens.

The goal of the alliance is for governments to take concrete steps to promote transparency, combat corruption, increase accountability, and capitalize on new technologies to strengthen democracy. While no one can deny that these are worthy and laudable goals, the reality is that these commitments will remain rhetorical declarations as long as governments–and Mexico’s in particular–fail to invest all their political will to guarantee fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression and the press.

It is important and encouraging that Peña Nieto seeks to promote transparency in government actions, and to increase citizen participation. The Mexican president has said that the country intends to have an open government that “gets closer to its citizens and responds quickly, efficiently and transparently to their needs.” But at present, his statement is only wishful thinking.

The cold numbers and overwhelming statistics of cases of violence against the Mexican press do not contribute at all to the idea of open government. The numbers speak for themselves: more than 50 journalists have been killed or have disappeared in the past seven years amid a wave of violence that has terrorized journalists and the media across the country.

Terror creates fear and fear leads to silence. And silence means censorship. The issue extends far beyond the journalistic profession and harms all of society, which is unable to make informed decisions because of the obstacles the press faces in its daily work. An uninformed society is without doubt a less transparent and less democratic one.

The approval of the constitutional amendment that gives federal authorities greater jurisdiction over crimes against freedom of expression is an important step forward and one that changes the legal framework for the protection of this fundamental human right. But to strengthen the idea of ​​a truly open, transparent and accountable government, Peña Nieto will have to make a greater effort. Breaking the cycle of impunity surrounding crimes against the press is far from being finished business. Legal changes, although necessary, will be insufficient without strong political will from this administration. And Peña Nieto is well aware of this: without a vibrant and combative press that can freely carry out its work without fear of violent reprisal, the possibility of a truly open government vanishes.

[This article first appeared in El Universal on September 23, and has been translated into English]