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Mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera, casts his vote on June 5. Journalists were threatened and harassed in the lead up to state elections. (Reuters/Edgard Garrido)

In Mexico, covering state elections brings risk of threats and violence

By Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ Mexico Correspondent on June 10, 2016 5:27 PM ET

As the June 5 elections approached, the anonymous phone calls to Mexican journalist Pedro Canché became more frequent and more ominous. "The Caribbean is a big sea, you'll never be found," one said. "I hope you've written a will," said another. A third caller told Canché, "Remember what happened to Rubén Espinosa," referring to the photographer murdered in Mexico City on July 31 last year. "Do you want that to happen to you too?"

"They always hung up after immediately, I don't know who the callers were," Canché, an indigenous journalist and one of a handful of independent reporters in the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo, told CPJ. He said he received most of the threatening calls between May 25 and June 1, just as the campaign for last Sunday's election for state governor were about to end. He said he was unable to report the calls to the police because he wasn't able to tape them.

Canché has not only been dogged by death threats. Since early this year he has been the target of an online smear campaign by websites accusing him of, among other things, illegally trafficking tropical lumber--Canché also owns a furniture business--and having a "depraved lifestyle."

He said several websites were involved in the campaign. CPJ could corroborate at least two, one of which was taken offline shortly after election day. The other is the website of Respuesta, a tabloid newspaper with no apparent party affiliation, but close ties to whomever is in government.

"Most of those articles were so ridiculous that they made me laugh", Canché told CPJ. "But that newspaper has a big circulation in the state and some people might believe it. It hasn't had much impact on my work, but I do take it seriously."

Canché has been a long-time critic of the administration of outgoing governor Roberto Borge, of the ruling Party of the Institutional Revolution. The reporter, who publishes most of his work on his website, Pedro Canché Noticias, is no stranger to intimidation against the press. In 2015 CPJ documented how he spent 271 days in prison on charges of sabotage, for allegedly organizing protests against high water bills in the region south of Cancún, only to have the conviction thrown out by a federal judge later.

CPJ spoke with Canché last weekend in Mexico City. He said he decided to spend the election weekend in the relative safety of the capital due to the threats and smear campaigns against him, which he believes were caused by him not choosing to back any party or candidate for governor during the campaign. "All the media in Quintana Roo have been co-opted by political parties and the state government," he told CPJ. "Whosoever chooses not to support any party, like I did, will be threatened and smeared."

While CPJ was not able to verify his claim about media bias, the harassment against Canché was not an isolated case. Reporters, media outlets, and press freedom organizations across Mexico reported cases of journalists being harassed during the regional elections that were held in 12 Mexican states. They also spoke of an increasingly hostile climate against journalists as the campaigns neared their end.

Voters in 12 states elected new governors, mayors, and members of state congresses in the largest electoral event before the end of President Enrique Peña Nieto's term in 2018. Some of the most violent states in the country, including Veracruz and Tamaulipas, were among those holding elections. In Veracruz alone, six journalists have been murdered in relation to their work since outgoing governor Javier Duarte began his term in 2010, according to CPJ research. In another nine cases of killed journalists, CPJ is investigating the motive.

CPJ research indicates that a majority of the journalists murdered in Mexico in recent years reported on politics. Violence against journalists, activists, and rival political workers during electoral campaigns and on voting day is common in the country. The freedom of expression group, Article 19, closely monitored the latest elections and reported at least 19 attacks or acts of harassment against journalists on June 5.

In Mexico City, which was holding elections for a new constitutional assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution for the capital, the newspaper Reforma reported that two of its journalists were surrounded by sympathizers of the Party of the Democratic Revolution. The two reporters, whom the newspaper did not name, were investigating rumors of vote-buying in the southern borough of Tlalpan, when they were surrounded for at least an hour by about 50 people wearing clothes that carried the Party of the Democratic Revolution logo, according to reports. The outlet was the only one that had reporters at the scene at that time. The crowd allowed the journalists to leave only after they had erased photos from their cameras. The newspaper said members of the crowd also threatened the journalists with violence if they were to publish anything. The party has not commented publicly on the case. Repeated attempts by CPJ to reach a spokesperson for the party were not immediately successful.

Three journalists investigating allegations of vote-buying in the city of Nuevo Casas Grandes, in the northern state of Chihuahua, were detained on election day. Saturnino Martínez Nava, who runs the website La Revisa NCG and works as a correspondent for national broadcaster, Televisa, Cecilia Fuentes Arvizu, of newspaper El Diario del Noroeste, and Karina Hernández Acuña of the website Akro Noticias, were arrested by municipal policemen, according to reports.

Gustavo Valdez, manager of the local edition of El Diario, Chihuahua's biggest newspaper, told local media the police had not justified the arrest of the reporters. Proceso, a Mexico City investigative weekly, reported that the mayor, Rodolfo Soltero Aguirre, ordered the arrests of the journalists who were accused of breaking into a voting booth, thus violating the right of voters to cast their ballot in secret. La Revisa NCG said the reporters were given permission to enter the voting booth by a guard, who later denied he had done so when confronted by policemen.

Other media reported that Soltero told local media he ordered that the journalists be freed. Martínez was released shortly after his arrest, but Fuentes and Hernández remained in custody for another eight hours. None of them face further action.

CPJ was unable to reach the municipality of Nuevo Casas Grandes for comment. Mayor Soltero, a member of the Party of the Institutional Revolution who was not up for re-election and will leave office this year, apologized in La Revisa NCG for what had happened.

Political analysts largely agree that last weekend's elections were a victory for the conservative opposition National Action Party, which won governor in seven states, and a heavy defeat for the Party of the Institutional Revolution.

[Reporting from Mexico City]


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