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Mexico is deadliest country for journalists, who also face government harassment

Israel Vázquez, 31, a journalist devoted primarily to human interest stories, spent the last hours of his life in November covering the discovery of a group of dismembered people left in a church in Salamanca, Mexico.

Vázquez was preparing to do a Facebook broadcast when two men on a motorcycle drove by and shot him at point-blank range. He died after receiving at least eight bullet wounds.

“We were very sad. We still are, because he was just doing his job. The violence has increased too much,” said Víctor Ortega, manager of the website El Salmantino, where Vázquez worked.

Vázquez’s killing is still being investigated, but he wasn’t the only reporter killed in Mexico in 2020. At least eight journalists were killed there last year, which, according to Reporters Without Borders, makes Mexico the deadliest country for journalists, a macabre distinction the country has had for years.

The state of Guanajuato, where Salamanca is based, had at least 922 victims of extreme violence in 2020, the highest number in the country, according to Causa en Común, a nonprofit that records acts of violence in Mexico. Celaya, another city in the state located about 30 miles from Salamanca, was considered the most dangerous city in the world in 2020, according to a ranking by the Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. Last June, 20 murders were recorded there in a 24-hour period.

Vázquez, who worked two jobs and was an avid soccer fan, was taken to the soccer field one last time as his friends and colleagues carried his coffin.

‘A threat to the entire press and society’

Journalist María Elena Ferral was shot eight times in broad daylight in Veracruz on March 30. In the same state, Julio Valdivia was beheaded Sept. 9. Jorge Miguel Armenta Ávalos was shot to death on May 16. Jaime Daniel Castaño, director of a media outlet in Zacatecas, took photographs of two bodies abandoned on the street, and, shortly after, he was shot in December. Víctor Fernández was dismembered in Acapulco, and his remains were found in April.

All these cases are still being investigated, and most hypotheses about the killings focus on the work the reporters were doing exposing corruption or organized crime.

According to a report from the U.S. Department of State, 94 percent of crimes committed in Mexico are not reported or investigated. The civic organization Impunidad Cero estimates that nearly 9 of 10 homicides go unpunished.

“In Mexico we are experiencing a crisis of generalized violence, human rights violations, disappearances, femicides, executions, and we are all victims,” said Itzia Miravete, prevention coordinator at Article 19, an organization that defends the right of freedom of expression. “In the case of journalists, it becomes important to make it visible because when a reporter is attacked, the intention is to prevent their information from reaching me, to reach society.”

May 3 marked World Press Freedom Day, a date established by the United Nations to commemorate the Declaration of Windhoek, when a group of African journalists called for media pluralism and independence in 1991.

Some journalists have to travel the world to report about conflicts and wars. But for many Mexicans, the massacres and shootings are just around the corner, in the neighborhoods where they grew up, in the cities where they live.

“When a journalist is killed — in any region — for covering a matter of public interest, that is not only a message against the media to which he belongs but is a threat to the entire press and society,” Pedro Vaca, special rapporteur for Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, told Noticias Telemundo. “Colleagues who knew the reporter was investigating a corruption case or was behind an organized crime story hear that message and will think about it long before reporting those much-needed stories.”

The desecration of corpses, torture, massacres, dismemberment, calcination, the murder of minors, attempted lynchings, femicides, mutilations, rapes and, of course, murders are daily events for journalists who cover the escalation of violence in a country that, according to official data, has recorded the two darkest years in its history with 34,681 murders in 2019 and 34,552 in 2020.

Amnesty International’s annual report denounced a series of actions led by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who, in his morning conferences, tends to lash out at national media such as Reforma or international media such as The New York Times or El País. Amnesty International said this weakens the press and favors the establishment of an “environment conducive to censorship, administrative sanctions and misuse of the law to intimidate the press.”

“Many heads of state in the region forget that by voluntarily entering public debate, they expose themselves to criticism and must be tolerant,” reflected Vaca, who worries about the stigmatization of journalists in countries like Mexico. “But the most important thing is that they are guarantors of human rights, of freedom of expression, not just of those who applaud them but those who criticize them.”

“The followers of the president can consider that degrading speech as permission, an encouragement, to attack reporters,” Vaca said. “And if that is done in a country considered the most lethal for the press in the world, I think that borders on recklessness because in a way it has been shown that the maturity of the public debate is not achieved and leads to violence against the media.”

In February, Human Rights Watch warned in a report that more than 80 governments used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violations of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and assembly. In April, Reporters Without Borders denounced that journalists have to work under partial or total restrictions in two-thirds of the world.

Using laws to silence criticism

In 2020 alone, 39 cases of legal harassment were committed against journalists in Mexico, according a new report by Article 19 entitled “Laws of Silence.” Between 2015 and 2019, the organization registered 69 cases of legal actions to intimidate and hinder journalists’ work.

In July 2016, Sergio Aguayo, a Mexican journalist and human rights activist, was sued for moral damage by Humberto Moreira, the former governor of Coahuila and former national president of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, who believes he was affected by the publication of an opinion column.

“The working hypothesis is that Moreira is suing me as a way to inhibit or punish me for the research I have been doing on violence in the state of Coahuila — of course, in part, during the time he was governor,” Aguayo said.

In March 2019, the journalist was acquitted of all charges, but the former governor challenged that ruling. The sentence was reversed, and the journalist was sentenced to pay 10 million pesos (about $500,000) for moral damages in favor of Moreira.

“The laxity of judges who accept extravagant claims like Moreira’s is absurd, not because it is a moral damage lawsuit — I think there should be such a mechanism,” Aguayo said, “but because they accept such an absurdly high request for compensatory damages.”

A 2016 ruling eliminated the maximum limits for sentences based on moral harm damage, a decision that was widely criticized by human rights organizations and that explains the disproportionate amount demanded of Aguayo. His case has had extensive media coverage and is in the Supreme Court, where a final sentence is expected in the coming months.

‘When I came in, I got beat up’

Pedro Canché, a Mayan journalist from the state of Quintana Roo, was accused of sabotage for documenting the violent eviction of residents from the city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in 2014. The residents were protesting outside of the state’s Potable Water and Sewer Commission.

Canché was arrested and placed in a local jail. He spent nine months in prison.

“When I came in, I got beat up,” the reporter said. “They took me to the basketball court they have back there, outside of the cameras, and about 20 of them beat me, with kicks, slaps and blows.”

Canché suffered injuries to his shoulder blade and lungs, and his arm was broken. He said he’s still suffering from his injuries.

“I recently went to the doctor because I still have those very severe pains. I have to take some pills for life because of the pain,” the journalist said. “Sleeping is a problem because they destroyed my cervical spine, so there is no way to position my head.”

He said there’s a sense of impunity around his case; some officers were sentenced, but some were released shortly after. Canché continues to be attacked with smear campaigns and false accusations about his reporting, denouncing abuses of power in Quintana Roo.

Several projects are trying to keep a focus on violence against the press.

“Killing Nobody” is a type of digital memorial in which 100 journalists and editors from the organization Reporteras en Guardia contribute to the demand for justice in the cases registered in the last 20 years.

The Cartel Project brought together an international network of journalists to continue the investigations of Mexican reporters killed during their efforts to report on the country’s criminal organizations and their global connections. This includes journalist Regina Martínez, who was killed in 2012 while investigating the links between politicians and criminal organizations in the state of Veracruz.

Keeping these cases in the spotlight so the slain journalists’ work is not in vain is a battle many of Mexico’s reporters say is worth waging.

“In the end, what matters to us is that what is happening in our regions is known,” Canché said. “That all the corruption isn’t forgotten, all the attacks. That’s why we do this.”

If you have information about cases of abuse against journalists in Mexico or Central America, you can email [email protected]

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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