Mexican Journalists Face Rising Danger After Sharp Increase in Killings
“Twenty-six days have passed since the murder of journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea, and her case remains unpunished.” This number is the only piece of news that has been updated on the website of the 27-year-old Mexican newspaper Norte since April 2, 2017. And it will be the only piece of news that will be updated going forward. On April 2, the paper’s director, Oscar Cantu Murguia, announced he was closing operations due to safety concerns for journalists in Mexico. In his letter printed on the front page of the last issue, he wrote, “there are neither the guarantees nor the security to exercise critical, counterbalance journalism.”
It is a shocking thing, the closure of a news organization out of fear. And yet it is not such a far leap when the mortality rate of journalists in Mexico is taken into account: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 1992, at least 39 journalists have been killed in Mexico because of their work. Mexico is one of the deadliest countries for journalists in 2017. With the murders of three journalists and attacks on two others in March, as well as the murder of another journalist in April, Mexico’s already dismal record has steadily worsened.
Cecilio Pineda Birto, a freelance journalist and the founder of the weekly publication La Voz de Tierra Caliente, reported on government corruption in the state of Guerrero—he was killed there on March 2. Ricardo Monlui Cabrera, the director of the media outlet El Político, wrote about politics and sugarcane production. He was shot dead on March 19 in his home state of Veracruz, widely considered to be the most dangerous state for journalists in Mexico. Miroslava Breach Velducea, whose case is now featured on the Norte website, wrote about organized crime for Norte and La Jornada. She was murdered in Chihuahua on March 23. And Maximino Rodriguez Palacios, who covered politics and crime for the Pericú Collective, was killed in Baja California Sur on Friday, April 14.
These cases are just the latest skeletons in Mexico’s closet: dozens of murders and an overwhelming climate of impunity for their killers. There have been some small promising developments: Two men were arrested in the case of Anabel Flores Salazar, though it seems there has not been much progress in that case since August 2016. Just this March, an ex-police commander was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murder of Marcos Hernández Bautista, though it is widely considered that the mastermind remains at large. And in Rubén Espinosa’s case, though some charges have been made, the investigation has been half-hearted at best.
The rash of journalist killings in Mexico over the last two months and the closing of a Mexican newspaper suggest a dangerous free fall for freedom of expression in Mexico, which should be a wake-up call to the Mexican government and to the world. Cantu’s fears are well-founded, and the decision to protect his employees by closing the paper was not arrived at lightly. However, while the shock value of Norte’s voluntary shuttering may be damaged due to this longstanding danger, its effects will be felt throughout the country and around the world.
Shuttering a news source to protect journalists is an unfortunate precedent to set when combatting authorities who have taken numerous opportunities to limit free expression, censor criticism, and allow journalists to be harassed, attacked, and murdered with impunity. Journalists are the public’s voice; the citizens’ eagle-eyed, sharp-tongued, but peaceful army; a government’s sounding board; and a barometer of truth. If one outlet for journalism is intimidated into silence, it is only a matter of time before authorities will seek to repeat the formula.
The Mexican government has shown time after time its unwillingness to comprehensively address the dangers to journalists in its country. In August 2015, PEN America and hundreds of writers urged President Enrique Peña Nieto to investigate the murders of journalists and establish mechanisms to protect their lives. In April 2016, PEN America convened a symposium of artists and writers to discuss and debate Mexico’s challenges in defending expression. Steps have been taken—for example, Pineda had previously been identified as a journalist at risk and received protection from the government. However, this protection was deemed no longer necessary in October 2016. Five months later, he was dead.
Mexico’s death toll for journalists is rising, and the great majority of journalists’ murders have never been prosecuted. The culture of fear in Mexico has grown so much that a newspaper has closed because of it, and Mexican reporters are seeking asylum in the United States, as in the case of Martin Mendez Pineda, who reportedly fled the country after having been beaten by the police in connection to his work as a journalist. His future remains unclear as he now faces a new atmosphere of hostility toward foreigners in the United States, which has led to the detentions of many artists and writers whether they were seeking asylum or simply traveling.
Even as the closed Norte’s website continues to count the days since their colleague was killed, more murders continue to occur. A Google search of “Mexico journalism” underscores the scope of this crisis, with search results yielding too many headlines beginning with “Another Journalist Killed…” There are those who attempt to save themselves by leaving the country who then run into the newly empowered Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers of the United States. There are those who attempt to save themselves by stopping their work altogether. And there are those who attempt to save themselves by continuing their reporting in the hope that their persistence and bravery will pay off in the end. None of these are acceptable options for the fate of freedom of expression. Outrage over the state of journalism in Mexico is growing, and it must grow bigger and broader before more news organizations shut down their offices and more retreating journalists run up against America’s closed doors.