At least 13 journalists have been killed in Mexico in the first eight months of 2022, the highest number the Committee to Protect Journalists has ever documented in the country in a single year. In a country characterized by corruption and organized crime, it’s unclear how many were targeted directly because of their work. CPJ research has confirmed a journalism-related motive for at least three of the deaths and continues to investigate the others. Members of the press in Mexico are confronting a crisis that is exceptional outside of war zones. Amid a cycle of violence and impunity, news coverage in some regions is on the brink of disappearing.
Here is CPJ’s briefing on the ongoing press freedom crisis in Mexico.
Why is the rate of journalist killings in Mexico so high in 2022?
As of August 30, 2022, at least three journalists have been murdered in retaliation for their reporting, and CPJ is investigating another 10 killings to determine the motive. For each of the last six years, CPJ has documented at least nine journalists killed in Mexico.
The August 22 killing of Fredid Román, founder of the La Realidad newspaper and a columnist for the Vértice de Chilpancingo newspaper, is the latest example of the deadly results of the Mexican government’s failure to make the country safe for reporters.
Determining the motive in these killings is often difficult for both reporters and press freedom organizations. While investigating attacks on journalists, CPJ has found that authorities are often slow to respond, fail to apply best practices to evidence gathering, and appear to prioritize presenting suspects as soon as possible, rather than conducting a thorough investigation. Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether official investigations are trustworthy, as authorities allegedly collude with criminal gangs or are involved in the attacks themselves.
CPJ has also documented 15 cases of missing reporters, all of whom have disappeared on the job since 2005. The most recent case was that of Jorge Molontzín, who disappeared in the northern state of Sonora in March 2021. Mexico leads the world in the number of missing journalists, according to CPJ research, and authorities have made little progress in investigating the disappearances.
Reporters covering sensitive topics such as corruption, local politics, and organized crime are at the greatest risk.
The high levels of violence against journalists can be attributed in part to the failure of state and federal authorities to make the environment safer for reporters or even take crimes against the press seriously, as CPJ has documented. Officials don’t know how to or lack the political will to implement measures that effectively protect journalists facing extreme risks, as in the case of Miroslava Breach, who was murdered in Chihuahua in 2017.
Mexico consistently features on CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, which highlights countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go free. In the vast majority of murder cases in the country, no suspect has been convicted. Further, authorities have made scant progress in investigating non-lethal attacks on journalists.
As a result of the spiraling violence and impunity, entire regions of the country have now become so-called silenced zones, where journalists are no longer able to do meaningful critical or investigative reporting.
What are the Mexican authorities doing to protect journalists?
There are several laws and entities that deal specifically with journalist protection in Mexico, including state and federal protection mechanisms, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes against Freedom of Expression, and the National Human Rights Commission.
Protection mechanisms, established by law in 2012, were once promising but are currently under scrutiny and in need of significant reform and additional resources if they hope to keep journalists safe. As of early 2022, the federal government said it enrolled over 1,500 people in the protection scheme. Around a third of them were journalists, up from just over 350 in 2019.
The Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists provides dozens of protective measures, including camera systems, bulletproof vehicles, panic buttons, police protection, and relocation of journalists at extreme risk of violence. Problems limiting its impact include poor training, too few personnel and resources, and insufficient coordination with state authorities, CPJ has found. At least nine reporters and dozens of human rights defenders have been killed while technically under protection from the federal mechanism since the institution was created in 2012.
The mechanisms nominally exist in 17 of 32 Mexican states, according to conversations between CPJ and Enrique Irazoque, the current head of the federal mechanism, but many of them exist primarily on paper and have been almost completely ineffective, except for those in Mexico City and Veracruz. Reporter Lourdes Maldonado—who was shot dead in Tijuana in January—was enrolled in the Baja California state mechanism when she was killed.
The special prosecutor’s office has many of the same problems and limitations as the federal mechanism—it is understaffed, has inadequate or untrained prosecutors working at the state levels, and is too selective in determining which cases to federalize—problems that have plagued the office for years, as CPJ has repeatedly noted.
What recommendations are being made to Mexican authorities to improve the safety of journalists?
Press freedom organizations have repeatedly urged Mexican authorities to reform journalists’ protections and strengthen the institutions created to protect reporters and investigate crimes against the press. The federal mechanism’s responsibilities, scope, and size must be significantly expanded. More money and personnel are needed. The federal government must make sure that officials coordinating protective measures know and understand both human rights and the unique nature of the work of journalists.
The mechanism must also become more transparent and accountable. Despite its relatively small size and budget, little public information is available about how the funds are spent, nor is it clear who can be held responsible when a journalist or human rights defender is killed despite being assigned protection, according to a 2019 analysis of the mechanism by the Mexico office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The ongoing federal mechanism reform, which was announced in January 2022, could be signed into law by the end of the year or early 2023, but its implementation would take another one or two years, according to news reports and several conversations CPJ has had with Irazoque, the mechanism’s head, in 2022. In the longer term, strengthened protections will be insufficient if nothing is done to end corruption in local police forces, prosecutors, and courts, and if transparent, exhaustive investigations into murders of journalists continue to be an exception.
What is the wider political and institutional context for the violence against journalists?
Mexico has seen ever-growing violence for years affecting many parts of society. Attacks on journalists and media organizations are happening in a wider context of unchecked crime, disappearances, and systemic impunity. National protests against violence—especially the alarming rate of violence against women—have become more frequent.
Press freedom organizations and journalists have also raised concerns about authorities’ hostile rhetoric toward the press, including rhetoric by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Journalists who report critically on the current administration have reported being singled out and harassed online, most prominently by Twitter users. At least 17 Mexican reporters have been killed in direct relation to their work since López Obrador took office on December 1, 2018.
At least 25 journalists in Mexico investigating corruption and human rights abuses have been allegedly subject to surveillance with Pegasus spyware technology, according to a report by investigative journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories. (NSO Group, the Israeli company that makes Pegasus and sells it to government clients, has disputed the report.) Relatives of investigative journalists have also been allegedly targeted by spyware.
One bright point in this press freedom crisis has been the efforts from journalists and citizens to come together, protest violence against journalists, and call for the Mexican government to do more to ensure security for reporters under threat.