Mexico’s Embattled Journalists: An Interview with Mariclaire Acosta

Mexico remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Mariclaire Acosta, director for Freedom House’s program in Mexico City,  talks here about the interconnected crises of security, press freedom, and accountability.

Mexico remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Mariclaire Acosta, director for Freedom House’s program in Mexico City,  talks here about the interconnected crises of security, press freedom, and accountability.

One of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists is Mexico, where 11 reporters have been murdered since 2014. Mariclaire Acosta directs Freedom House’s program in Mexico City to improve journalists’ professionalism and safety. Acosta, Mexico’s former Deputy Secretary for Human Rights and Democracy, talks here about the interconnected crises of security, press freedom, and accountability.

Freedom House: Mexico has gained notoriety for attacks targeting journalists, crimes that usually go unsolved. Why is the danger so great for reporters?

Mariclaire: The dangers need to be put in the context of the security crisis Mexico is suffering. Journalists working for local outlets find themselves in towns where organized crime groups dominate the security and justice systems, and maybe even the mayor’s office – or, in some states, even the governor’s office. Many times, journalists will disclose links between criminal organizations and the local power structure and because of that find themselves on dangerous ground. It may be as simple as reporting on a wedding that someone from the local cartel is attending. On the local level, journalists risk being beaten and having their cameras taken when they cover protests. When it comes to physically abusing journalists during demonstrations, police in Mexico City have the worst record of all.

Nationally, there are a number of high-profile cases that aim to silence journalists, such as that of Carmen Aristegui. She’s the radio news host who broke the story about the first lady Angelica Rivera buying luxury homes from a government contractor. This led to the termination of Carmen’s daily news program and her firing.

Clearly, there’s not just one problem.

You have censorship. You have direct physical attacks. And you have intimidation. One reason journalists in Mexico are so vulnerable is that media outlets depend heavily on government advertising for their survival. This advertising is not regulated, and the money involved is enormous. If a journalist criticizes a government institution, the media outlet may fire him, or not protect him, in order to keep the government advertising.

Labor conditions are the other structural problem. ln general, and especially at the local level, journalists are very poorly paid. They are much like freelancers, who are paid only if their stories are printed or broadcast. This makes the reporters vulnerable to corruption themselves.

What can reporters and the country’s institutions do to improve this situation?

One important thing is to make freedom of expression and freedom of the press part of a national conversation. We need to sensitize society to the fact that, if you don’t have a free press, you don’t have the tools you need to exercise your citizenship or to be safe. We have to do a better job of making people aware of the importance of journalists to society, democracy, and good governance.

Another thing is to work with the journalists themselves. What we’ve done is to give journalists basic tools for self-protection and to raise their professional standards. It’s a long process to get them to work together to make their voices heard, in the hope of influencing public policy.

We’re also trying to get states to comply with their obligation to protect free expression and a free press. That’s the hardest part of all. Most attacks against journalists go unpunished. Nearly 90 percent of cases go unsolved. You find investigations of attacks against journalists that are still open after 16 years… The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has made a lot of tough recommendations to Mexico on this.

Another step is to set up protection mechanisms, as Freedom House has sought to do. That entails training officials in charge of protection to understand what journalists do and what freedom of the press means, and then providing meaningful protection, especially in small towns. But are we going to going to have armed guards for every reporter? That won’t work.

What can be done to improve the culture of accountability?

We need to instill the concept of citizenship, which will be no small feat. People who have been living under authoritarian regimes don’t see themselves as rights-holders. Mexico has taken one fundamental step, which is to hold competitive elections. But that’s the first step in a long, long process. Anti-corruption groups are pushing for legislation that will force public officials to disclose their holdings. That would be another step. And then you have to make sure that, if that law is passed, it’s properly implemented. But that’s where civil society tends to fail.

The other main tool for accountability is the justice system. Reforming it has been a lengthy process. There’s very little capacity in the justice system as it stands now to actually investigate crimes. Civil society has tried to use the international human rights system to bring change, which is why the human rights system is being attacked now.

What we can do is keep pushing and pushing. It is in our favor that, since security problems are so widespread, they relate not just to human rights violations but also to ordinary crimes. We have to bring pressure to bear on the government to address the lack of access to justice for most of the population.

That’s what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been saying. That’s what the United States government has begun to say. It should say it a lot more strongly. The message is not well-received.  This is a system that has been living with impunity for decades.