Federal efforts to protect journalists fall short
The Mexican government has responded to the crisis by creating a special federal prosecutor to investigate attacks against the press and a safety mechanism to help at-risk reporters. But journalists with whom CPJ spoke say the measures don’t go far enough.
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“As Mexican journalists, we feel alone,” said Miguel Ángel Díaz, an editor who has used the safety mechanism. “We’re facing violence and impunity without knowing who to turn to or in whom we can trust.”
Díaz said he began to feel threatened around the time that Rubén Espinosa Becerril, a photographer from Veracruz, was murdered in Mexico City in 2015. Díaz, the editorial director and co-founder of Plumas Libres, an independent news website that is critical of authorities, said he noticed patrol cars constantly circling his offices in the state capital Xalapa, and police apparently monitoring him from street corners. [Editor’s note: Díaz contributed research for this report.]
Placing little faith in the administration of then-Governor Javier Duarte de Ochoa, he turned to the federal authorities for help. Díaz reported his case to the office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) and accepted protective measures from the Federal Protection Mechanism of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists—two institutions set up by the federal government to protect journalists.
But, he said, neither made him feel any safer. “The FEADLE refused to pick up my case, arguing that there hadn’t been any actual physical aggression against me,” he said. “And the mechanism only provided me with a panic button, but not much else.”
Eventually, in October 2015, CPJ helped Díaz and his family relocate temporarily to Argentina.
Díaz’s story is one repeated by journalists across Mexico, who face being attacked or killed for their critical coverage. Few cases ever lead to arrests, let alone convictions, and many journalists say that Mexico’s federal government is still failing to adequately protect them.
A special prosecutor to investigate attacks on Mexico’s press has been in place for more than 10 years. It was set up after then-President Vicente Fox pledged in a meeting with CPJ in September 2005 that he would establish the office in response to violence against the press in the northern states. In February 2006, two days after a vicious attack against the daily Nuevo Laredo-based El Mañana, the federal government named the first special prosecutor tasked with investigating crimes against journalists.
In 2010 FEADLE’s mandate was expanded to include crimes against freedom of expression. As a sub-division of the federal attorney general’s office, the agency operates under the auspices of the Sub-Prosecutor for Human Rights and has authority to conduct investigations into attacks on journalists and news outlets. Even when local authorities are looking into an attack, FEADLE can undertake a parallel investigation to determine whether a case should be handled by the federal authorities in lieu of the states.
“State authorities can’t tell us to not attract a case,” said Ricardo Nájera Herrera, who currently heads FEADLE. “We try to work together with them, we don’t want to get in the way of an ongoing investigation, but rather attempt to complement what they’re doing.”
The agency opened 123 case files between February 29, 2016 and January 31 of this year, 10 of which are homicides, according to figures it provided to CPJ. But since its inception, FEADLE has achieved only three convictions.
The ability of the institution to undertake investigations independent of state authorities is more effective on paper than in practice, according to many journalists and press freedom groups.
Nájera said that one of the reasons so few cases are taken up is because journalists are hesitant to report crimes, especially to local or state authorities. However, journalists can report attacks directly to the agency. FEADLE can also independently decide to undertake an investigation if it deems it necessary, regardless of whether it has been reported or not.
“It’s understandable that journalists don’t trust municipal and state authorities. They denounce, but in newspapers or in other media,” Nájera said. “One of the things we’re trying to do to solve that problem is organize a kind of intelligence gathering by scouring social media, the internet and media to find aggression against journalists ourselves.”
Part of the agency’s limitations at the start was a problem of “duplicity”—the inability to assume a case already under investigation at the state level. The duplicity issue was largely solved when changes to the Federal Code of Criminal Procedure in May 2013 allowed FEADLE to conduct parallel investigations whenever it saw fit.
Nájera said FEADLE is also working to improve coordination with local authorities, assume more cases and improve information gathering to get more journalists to report aggression directly to federal authorities. The agency has also increased its staff.
“When we started we had half the people we have now, and that meant there were limitations,” Nájera said. “We now have more investigators and we have members of the federal police working permanently with us.”
While FEADLE was set up to investigate attacks, the Federal Protection Mechanism of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists was founded to try to prevent them from happening. Currently employing 37 people and working with a budget of approximately 16 million pesos (US$835,000) per month, the institution’s aim is to conduct risk assessment in cases of threats against journalists and human rights defenders and take protective measures when necessary.
The mechanism can evacuate reporters, activists and their families, and provide them with a safe house, police protection, and a panic button. It is activated when either a journalist or third party reports receiving a threat to the agency. The mechanism does a risk assessment and, based on the level of threat, decides the best course of action.
“In a situation of imminent risk of death, we are legally mandated to act within three hours to evacuate the person in danger,” said Patricia Colchero Aragonés, who heads the mechanism. “When the risk is less immediate, we evaluate which measures we need to take to provide the person with protection.”
The level of protection offered is decided by the institution’s governing board, which includes representatives from several federal government secretariats and four members of a consultative council, made up of human rights and press freedom defenders.
Many journalists, including at least two with whom CPJ spoke who have used the protection measures, described the mechanism as lacking.
Díaz, who was enrolled for approximately a year in its protection program, said he was provided with only a panic button and the mechanism communicated with him a handful of times in that period. Last year, when CPJ visited another journalist, who was evacuated and cannot be named for security reasons, the door to his room in a safe house could be reached without a single person apparently standing guard or asking CPJ what the purpose of its visit was. News reports and the National Human Rights Commission, a watchdog set up by the federal government to monitor human rights violations, have repeatedly issued warnings in recent years that the institution lacks the funding and personnel to adequately deal with all cases.
When asked about the criticisms from journalists who use the mechanism, Colchero said that those enrolled in the program are also responsible for their safety. “When you're in a safe house, you can't call anyone. Those are rules we put in place. You can't invite anyone over. We also don't give psychological assistance, because we don't have the resources to do so and because it's the responsibility of the [federal] Executive Commission for Attention to Victims.”
Colchero acknowledges the mechanism got off to a rocky start. “We started out really badly. We didn’t have the money to implement protection measures, and the first year and a half we were lagging,” she said. “You can imagine that with the number of cases we had to handle. We didn’t have a methodology to evaluate risks, because in this country risk evaluations are done by the police. It was a very complicated period.”
According to the most recent statistics the mechanism provided to CPJ, it has admitted a total of 388 cases since 2012, 220 of them journalists. As of January 2017, it was providing 499 people with some form of protection, including 174 journalists.
Colchero denied claims in March 2017 news report that the mechanism has no budget, which is provided via a federal trust, for 2017. The report in La Jornada—a leading newspaper based in Mexico City—did not provide a source for its figures. Colchero said that the mechanism has funding through a trust until September and “the money to pay for protection measures. The Finance Secretariat will need to add funds to finance the remaning months of this year.” The head of the mechanism added, “We do hope, however, that we receive funds for next year, otherwise we’ll end up with the same issues as when we started.”
Colchero said she believes that most of the problems the mechanism faced are fixed and that the institution can adequately deal with its caseload. “We could use maybe 10 more people, but in terms of funding we have enough,” she said, adding, however, that the mechanism has not currently budgeted for new staff.