Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press

1. Summary

Violence against the press has swept the nation and destroyed Mexicans’ right to freedom of expression. This national crisis demands a full-scale federal response.

The Committee to Protect Journalists prepared this report to highlight the alarming problem of impunity in attacks on the press in Mexico. CPJ’s analysis points to systemic failures that if left unaddressed will further erode freedom of expression and the rule of law. Vital national and international interests are at stake.

Attacks on journalists endanger the nation

Twenty-two journalists have been murdered since President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa took office in December 2006, at least eight in direct reprisal for reporting on crime and corruption. Three media support workers have been slain and at least seven other journalists have gone missing during this period. In addition, dozens of journalists have been attacked, kidnapped, or forced into exile.

Systemic impunity has taken root at the state and local levels where most anti-press crimes are investigated. The criminal justice system has failed to successfully prosecute more than 90 percent of press-related crimes over the last decade, CPJ research shows. Mexico is ranked ninth-worst worldwide on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country’s population.

In case after case, CPJ has found negligent work by state prosecutors and police. Authorities have used unlawful methods, including coercion of witnesses and fabrication of evidence, on several occasions. Complicity between police and criminals is so common that many people interviewed by CPJ see the justice system as being controlled by the criminals. Pervasive self-censorship is a debilitating product of this lawlessness. News outlets, fearful of reprisals, are abandoning not only investigative reporting but basic daily coverage of crime and corruption.

The federal government has only intermittently recognized anti-press violence as a national problem. In 2006, under the presidency of Vicente Fox, the government created a federal special prosecutor’s office to investigate crimes against the press. Although the office was initially considered a step forward in combating impunity, it has proved ineffective.

CPJ believes the federal government must intervene directly to guarantee the right of free expression enshrined in the Mexican Constitution. Journalists themselves must contribute more to this effort. Reporters and editors have been corrupted by the same drug cartels that have infiltrated nearly every sector of society. And Mexico’s polarized media have yet to unify behind a set of principles to protect the nation’s journalists.

Case study: Murder goes unexamined, unpunished

Assailants in two vehicles intercepted reporter Bladimir Antuna García’s SUV as he was driving on a main street in the northwestern city of Durango in November 2009. Witnesses said five men with assault rifles ripped the reporter from his vehicle and drove off. Antuna’s body was found 12 hours later; his captors had tortured and strangled him.

Antuna was considered the top crime reporter in Durango. A prolific writer, he turned out several stories a day, some of them exclusives that reflected good sources in the army and police. Antuna started receiving threatening phone calls in late 2008, at least some from people identifying themselves as members of the Zetas criminal group. In April 2009, an assailant opened fire on his house.

Antuna reported the threats and attack to the state attorney general’s office, but no agents ever contacted him directly, he told fellow journalists. The state attorney general said Antuna never signed a complaint so the office could take no action. But the claim appears to be contradicted by records on file at the attorney general’s office. Those records include an official complaint signed by Antuna.

State authorities took little action after Antuna was murdered. A state prosecutor told CPJ that detectives conducted only cursory interviews with witnesses and the victim’s wife. Virtually no other investigative work was done. Many local journalists have concluded that authorities don’t want to solve the murder. Because the killers have gone unpunished, journalists said, in-depth crime reporting has essentially stopped in Durango.

Case study: Ceding information to the cartels

The Gulf cartel controls much of the local government in the eastern city of Reynosa, from law enforcement down to street vendor permitting, journalists and residents told CPJ. That story has not been reported in the local news media, however, because the cartel also controls the press.

Drug traffickers enforce censorship in Reynosa with threats, attacks, and payoffs. Many reporters take bribes from the cartel to slant or withhold coverage, journalists told CPJ. Some types of coverage are strictly prohibited. Reporters know, for example, to ignore kidnappings and extortion.

Journalists also know the grave consequences of defying the traffickers. Said one editor: “They will abduct you; they will torture you for hours; they will kill you, and then dismember you.” In a chilling illustration of the traffickers’ enforcement methods, three Reynosa journalists disappeared in March 2010 and are feared dead.

Events in 2010 illustrate how deeply censorship has taken hold. In February 2010, gunfights erupted in the streets as the Gulf cartel and the Zetas warred over control of the area. Reports in the U.S. press put deaths among gangsters in the dozens, but the local press provided virtually no coverage. In April 2010, in a brazen assault on the army, gangsters drove a convoy of SUVs to the front of a Reynosa military base and attacked with assault rifles and hand grenades. The military issued a press release, but there was virtually no independent reporting on the assault.

A national crisis is a federal responsibility

Four years after launching a national offensive against organized crime, the federal government has failed to take responsibility for widespread attacks on free expression. Corrupt state and local authorities remain largely in charge of fighting crimes against the press. Federal authorities take jurisdiction only if they conclude an offense is linked to organized crime or if military firearms are involved.

But the federal government has national and international responsibilities. Articles 6 and 7 of the Mexican Constitution guarantee individual rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Mexico has an obligation to uphold the right to free expression enshrined in that document.

CPJ and other press advocates support sweeping reforms that would add crimes against free expression to the federal penal code, and make federal authorities responsible for investigating and prosecuting attacks on the press. Other steps should be taken as well. A stronger and more autonomous federal special prosecutor for crimes against the press is vital. The creation of a government committee to provide direct protection for at-risk journalists would help as well.

Since 2008, the executive branch and Congress have moved haltingly to federalize anti-press crimes. Meeting with a CPJ delegation in June 2008, President Calderón declared support for a constitutional amendment to federalize crimes against freedom of expression. His proposal has failed to advance, however, as have other measures introduced in the legislature. Gridlock in Congress and opposition in the states are dimming prospects for reform. With many state-level politicians in league with criminal gangs, corrupt officials have much to fear from federalization.

Federalization will not end violence caused by drug trafficking and other criminal activities. CPJ has found numerous instances in which corrupt or lax federal authorities have failed to respond to anti-press violence. But federalization would send an important message that national leaders recognize the gravity of the situation. The more Mexico allows the news to be controlled by criminals, the more it erodes its status as a reliable global partner. Federal authorities are better trained, subject to greater scrutiny, and have greater resources than their local counterparts. They must be given responsibility to address this national crisis.

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