Mexico has become notorious as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, who risk their lives doing their work. Another string of recent media killings highlights the culture of impunity that pervades in the country and the urgent need for support from civil society. 

Five journalists have been killed in Mexico in just the first few weeks of 2022. Despite widespread protests from media workers, the violence seems unstoppable. In early February, a journalist’s son was shot dead in Tijuana, near the US–Mexico border. This was also where reporter Lourdes Maldonado was assassinated on 23 January and Margarito Martínez, a photojournalist, was murdered on 17 January.

These recent deaths are only the tip of the iceberg. Attacks on journalists in Mexico are numerous, they come in various forms and most incidents do not even make the headlines. On 10 January, reporter José Luis Gamboa was fatally stabbed in the state of Michoacán while another journalist in Yucatán survived a stabbing attack. Media workers in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero barely made it out alive after a slew of armed attacks over the past month.

Although organized criminal groups can be traced to many of the killings, to think that they are the only ones responsible for these attacks would be a naive misrepresentation. These killings do not happen in a vacuum; they are part of a landscape of political violence where criminal and state actors constantly negotiate for power. Authorities have benefited from the narrative that blames cartels for the violence in Mexico, which absolves the state from its prominent role in undermining the security of journalists and citizens’ right to press freedom. However, a large proportion of threats against media workers actually come from government officials themselves.

This is allegedly the case of journalist María Elena Ferral, who was murdered in March 2020. Before her assassination, Ferral had been investigating the killings of four candidates for mayor in a town in Veracruz, a strategic location where there is regular traffic of licit and illicit goods. In the last report she penned before she died, Ferral named the victims’ alleged killers and linked their deaths to political elites in the area. According to an investigation by Alianza de Medios Mx, an alliance of media outlets, these powerful figures have controlled the jurisdiction of the region for decades, often inheriting positions in public office. It is conceivable that Ferral was seen to pose a threat to the group not only because of her reporting, but also because she was running for mayor herself. She was shot in broad daylight in the middle of Papantla, a large city, and died hours later in hospital.

Press freedom under threat

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC)’s Global Assassination Monitor, a dataset that tracks contract killings around the world, found that 22 per cent of assassinations of media workers in 2019 and 2020 occurred in Mexico. According to watchdog group the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2021, Mexico was the deadliest country for journalists in the western hemisphere. Since the year 2000, 145 journalists have been killed in the country, with an impunity rate of over 90 per cent. The sheer scale of these murders is a clear indication that press freedom – which Mexicans have only recently painfully earned while building their democracy – is under threat.

There was no concept of press freedom in Mexico until the 71-year-long regime of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) finally came to an end in 2000. The PRI’s control of power favoured a monopoly over mass media ownership, which was used to disseminate an ‘official’ version of the truth – in essence, propaganda. Any media house that challenged the official government narrative was silenced. Self-censorship became the norm if independent news media were to survive.

Over the last two decades, changes in the country’s political dynamics have impacted media ownership and agendas. New broadcasting channels have made the industry more competitive, while ushering in an apparent trend of increased tolerance towards dissent. Meanwhile illicit markets have expanded and the country hosts more criminal actors than ever before, who exert increasing influence at the local level. Where journalists in Mexico face most danger is in the sphere of local criminal governance, where criminal organizations have permeated municipal institutions in a collusive environment. And word from the capital, Mexico City, is that the issue of journalists’ security is not high on the government’s agenda.

Back in March 2019, Lourdes Maldonado – one of the January 2022 victims – had made the long journey to attend a press conference in Mexico City given by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. When it was her turn to ask a question, she instead pleaded that she feared for her life and asked for support, help and justice at work. Both Maldonado and Martínez, another of the latest line of victims, had asked for protection from the authorities. Maldonado was given state support through a mechanism that protects journalists and human rights defenders.

The intervention clearly failed. At the time of his death, Martínez was still waiting to be enrolled in the programme. There are a number of such programmes in Mexico designed to protect journalists. However, they are woefully underfunded. What the government allocates for the protection of journalists is ‘less than what they spend on baseball,’ said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico’s representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

A burden that must be shared

These days, conversations among journalists in Mexico are filled with concern. Every new murder deepens an old wound. And as long as the authorities remain indifferent to their plight, the only glimmer of hope comes from civil society. Before he was assassinated, journalist Javier Valdez said that his profession needed society to defend it. And society, reciprocally, needs journalists to investigate organized crime, hold authorities and powerful figures to account, and uncover the stories that criminals vie to keep hidden.

Two years ago, Valdez’s widow, Griselda Triana, gathered families of murdered and disappeared journalists in Mexico City as part of her work with the GI-TOC’s Resilience Fund. Triana focused on understanding the resilience of these families and documented the survivors’ painful journeys. When a journalist is killed, their families often have to flee and hide, they are not entitled to state support and some cannot cover funeral costs.

To be a journalist in Mexico is a precarious life choice. Journalists face threats from criminals and government officials, labour conditions are poor and many lack access to health and mental care services. Civil society must support journalists, as we cannot wait for Mexico’s authorities to defend them, especially when they are often the culprit. The lives of journalists and the foundations of democracy itself depend on sharing the burden of creating a safer environment for media workers.

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