Freedom of Expression on the Agenda in Mexico | Freedom House

Freedom of Expression on the Agenda in Mexico

By Mariclaire Acosta, Mexico project director and Viviana Giacaman, director of Latin America programs.

Download a PDF version

Journalists Under Siege

Freedom of expression and the practice of journalism have been held hostage by the spiral of violence, which threatens to undermine the very foundations of Mexico’s democracy.
President Barack Obama’s planned trip to Mexico, the first to Latin America during his second term, demonstrates the importance the U.S. administration places on bilateral relations with its neighbor to the south. While the Obama administration has filled the agenda with security topics, such as the Mérida Initiative, it also intends to broaden the spectrum of dialogue to include much more positive and forward-looking topics including trade and energy relations.

President Obama is right to propose a broad agenda of mutual interest. The security situation in Mexico, which the United States has attempted to address with approximately $2 billion in assistance, has brought about consequences that President Obama simply cannot ignore, such as the shocking number of victims—nearly 60,000 people—as a result of the war against drug cartels. Freedom of expression and the practice of journalism have been held hostage by the spiral of violence, which threatens to undermine the very foundations of Mexico’s democracy. Given the serious repercussions on democratic governance and stability, President Obama should give the protection of journalists a prominent place on the bilateral agenda.

Attacks against journalists and media outlets in Mexico have increased since 2000 in proportion to the violence in the streets, turning the country into one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism.

While the statistics are not exact, given the difficulty of accessing information and the silence of the victims and relatives who distrust the authorities, official figures provided by the National Human Rights Commission [Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos] (CNDH), have documented 82 murders of journalists, 18 disappearances, and 33 attacks on media outlets in the last twelve years. In 2012, there were eight murders (six of them in Veracruz) and four disappearances of journalists (half of them in Veracruz). Violence against the press has increased by 20% in the past year, according to figures from the international freedom of the press organization, Artículo 19. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), headquartered in New York, notes that no country in the world has as many disappeared journalists as Mexico. Its figures are more conservative than those of the CNDH with 12 disappearances reported in the last 12 years.

According to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), six physical attacks, five kidnappings, five attacks against the media, and one murder have already been recorded in Mexico so far in 2013. Additionally, the newspaper Diario Zócalo de Coahuila announced that it would stop covering news about the cartels because of threats it has received. Moreover, the author of the blog “Valor por Tamaulipas” made the decision to stop informing the public of confrontations between criminals, and between criminals and the authorities, because organized crime groups had offered a reward to anyone who provided the information need to find him.

The most serious cases, such as murders and disappearances, are attributed mostly to organized crime, and the vast majority of those cases have been met with impunity. However, studies reveal that many individuals also report that corrupt officials and security forces colluded with drug cartels at the state, local and federal levels in attacks against them. Artículo 19 recorded an uptick in the number of attacks on journalists in recent years. While the organization reported 303 attacks between 2009 and 2011, 207 were recorded in 2012 alone. The victims attribute 44% of these attacks to authorities at all three levels of government.

Given the tens of thousands of victims of homicide and disappearance in the wake of the “war on drugs,” the number of journalists and reporters who have been killed or disappeared could, at first glance, seem low. Nevertheless, in addition to being a matter of human lives, the violence against journalists and reporters has the pernicious effect of violating the fundamental rights of all citizens, including freedom of expression, essential to civic cohesion and engagement; the right to information, vital to ensuring democratic governance; and public safety, a basic requirement for peace.

Self-censorship has been a common response among journalists and media workers to the threat of violence, and many states have turned into news “black holes,” where information about the violence is no longer published. The consequences of silence are serious. It helps perpetuate the impunity of crimes and the creation of a citizenry that is uninformed, and therefore weak and unable to exercise its rights. Two reports put out by the Mexican Foundation for Investigative Journalism [Fundación Mexicana para el Periodismo de Investigación] (MEPI) confirmed that in 2010 and 2011, as violence increased in 14 states of the Republic, newspaper coverage decreased by more than 50%. The situation is such that in 2011, only two newspapers in two states of the 14 studied were able to publish and follow up on information related to violence, provide context, or give the names of victims. The rest were submerged in silence.

These challenges to the exercise of freedom of expression are faced not only by journalists and traditional news media; censorship and repression has also begun to affect the users of social networks.

Microsoft Research recently published a study on the behavior of everyday citizens who report news on Twitter or Facebook, also called citizen journalists, from places like Tamaulipas, Monterrey, or Coahuila, where there is a news vacuum with respect to violence and organized crime. The citizen journalists who took part in the study expressed frustration over the media’s weakness in connection to the issue of violence. Microsoft’s research concludes that these citizens on social networks are the ones who report, confirm, comment on, and disseminate information about the violence that exists in their communities. This reporting comes at a high cost: at the end of 2011, four citizen reporters were killed in Nuevo Laredo, two appeared hanging from a bridge and two others were decapitated.

Citizen journalists are also victims of intimidations and attacks. At the end of 2012, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists conducted a survey on digital security among journalists and Twitter users in 20 states. According to the findings, they routinely face cyber-espionage and the “cracking” of email accounts during the course of their work. The report also reveals that 70% of the 103 individuals interviewed had been attacked because of their work, and 96% know someone who has been the victim of attacks.

Initiatives in defense of freedom of expression

Both the State and civil society in Mexico have responded to the challenges of violence against the press with several initiatives.

The first is the creation of a state protection mechanism for at-risk journalists. This mechanism—created by the Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists (LPPPDDH), and enacted in June 2012—must examine cases of journalists or human rights defenders in vulnerable situations, and provide protection to safeguard the lives and safety of those who are at risk. The regulations enabling the implementation of this mechanism were delayed, and were only enacted on November 30, 2012.

To date, difficulties have been encountered in the effective use of the mechanism. According to various sources, there is a shortage of qualified personnel to examine cases referred to the mechanism, and case files have started to become backlogged. In addition, a significant portion of the financial resources allocated to its operation cannot be used, as the trust in which the funds are held does not yet meet the criteria and guidelines required by the Department of the Treasury for its operation. Finally, there is little information on the procedures for accessing the mechanism. On the one hand, civil society organizations are not clear on how to go about doing so; on the other hand, they still do not have confidence in either the mechanism or the authorities that administer it.

Second, the amendment of Article 73-XXI of the Constitution, officially published on June 25, 2012, authorizes federal authorities to bring to federal jurisdiction cases of attacks on journalists that have occurred at the local level. Because this is a constitutional amendment, its operation requires the amendment of secondary laws. These reforms were recently passed by the plenary session of the Senate, on April 11, 2013. They have to be ratified by the House of Representatives, and then published by the President of the Republic in order to take effect.

The third is the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE), created in 2010 under the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR). Although this is a good initiative, and it has shown some results during its years of operation, the PGR is currently in the midst of a restructuring process, and therefore the permanence, operating capacity and effectiveness of the FEADLE is uncertain.

The fourth initiative is still pending, and pertains to the strengthening of a specialized authority within the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic in charge of hearing all cases involving freedom of expression, both federal and local. This authority must have full autonomy, sufficient powers, a budget, and personnel qualified to perform these duties effectively.

Civil society has been very active in creating forums for discussion, dialogue, and the drafting of specific proposals designed to lessen the vulnerability of journalists and freedom of expression.

Among other activities, at the beginning of 2012, Freedom House brought together civil society organizations and government authorities, as well as the Mexican Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to form a working group to strengthen the institutions of the State in order for it to meet its obligation to protect the safety and rights of citizens. During this time, the group has directed its efforts toward strengthening a protection mechanism for rights defenders and at-risk journalists within the Ministry of Internal Affairs (SEGOB), which preceded the LPPPDDH. It has also made efforts to combat impunity through close cooperation with the FEADLE.

Although these bodies have been fundamental to the progress of government protection initiatives, there is still a long way to go in the defense of freedom of expression and the safety of journalists. Freedom House offers several recommendations here, for both the Mexican government and President Obama that could contribute in this respect.

Recommendations for President Obama on his visit to Mexico:    

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto
and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Inclusion of violence against journalists and media workers as a fundamental item on the agenda for talks during the visit to Mexico: Freedom House considers that the exclusion of topics related to the serious and fragile status of freedom of expression in Mexico sends a negative signal to Mexican actors, including government authorities, civil society, and journalists themselves, who see the support of the United States as an important contribution to the improvement of their situation. President Obama should meet with journalists and freedom of expression advocates to hear their stories and the challenges they face first-hand and receive concrete recommendations from them.

Keep open permanent and formal channels of bilateral dialogue on human rights issues and the expansion of initiatives to protect journalists and human rights defenders: In March, the governments of the United States and Mexico resumed a set of bilateral talks on human rights issues (U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue), attended by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and other high-ranking officials. Freedom House recommends that both governments keep this line of communication open, include issues relating to freedom of expression on the agenda, and open this dialogue to the participation of civil society organizations. 

Recommendations to the Government of Mexico:

Strengthening of the Protection Mechanism: For the State to demonstrate a commitment to the protection of at-risk journalists, it must instruct the pertinent authorities to create the guidelines and standards needed to facilitate the trust that will enable the protection mechanism to function effectively. It is also necessary to strengthen and have sufficient human resources to examine the cases of at-risk journalists and rights defenders, thereby speeding up the process.

Open and maintain communication channels with civil society: Any national protection policy or program should include the people it intends to serve. Accordingly, open communication with Mexican civil society organizations must be maintained in order to further the dialogue on the protection of journalists and freedom of expression. Ongoing communication will ensure the transparency and responsibility of the protection mechanism, which, in turn, will create greater trust in the government.

Enactment of the Secondary Laws to the Amendment of Article 73-XXI: In order to be able to eradicate impunity and create a climate of justice, it is necessary to pressure the House of Representatives to enact these reforms.

Strengthening of the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE): It is vitally important to have a specialized body to handle crimes against freedom of expression, as the FEADLE has done. In the process of reforming the office of the public prosecutor, the Mexican government should ensure the FEADLE not only continues to exist, but also is strengthened through providing it with full autonomy, sufficient authority, a budget and personnel qualified to perform their duties effectively.