The year 2009 will be remembered as an abominable one for Mexican democracy. Not only because of an increase of violence between the government and the drug traffickers (the city of Ciudad Juárez is now among the deadliest places in the world, with about 2,250 killings this year), but also because to report on these offences has almost become a crime itself. In Mexico’s drug war, information is considered an enemy.
In 2009 a total of 12 journalists were killed. These figures make Mexico one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters, alongside Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia.
The most recent case was the death of José Emilio Galindo Robles, head of Radio Universidad de Guadalajara, who was killed on 24 November. As a reporter and researcher Galindo had experience on environmental issues, especially in environmental law winning the National Prize for Environmental Journalism in 2004 for a report about the impact of the pollution of the River Santiago.
According to local reports his body was found gagged and tied to a bed at his home after being reported missing for several days.
Twenty five years ago, on 30 May 1984, Manuel Buendía, one of the most respected journalists in the country, was assassinated in Mexico City. At the time, Buendía was researching the connections between drug dealers and politicians. Many were quick to qualify his murder as a hidden crime of the state. Those who called for justice in 1984, outraged by the passivity of the Mexican government to clarify the causes of the crime, now complain that attacks against journalists not only continued but have actually increased in recent times.
Since the National Action Party came to power in 2000, 58 journalists have been murdered and nine are missing and feared dead.
There have been no arrests for any of the 2009 murders nor have any suspects been identified. This is the scenario for most cases since 2000, as demonstrated in the well-know murder of cameraman Brad Will. Brad Will was shot dead in Mexico City, and despite a local paper publishing photos of the gunmen who were identified as local officials, nothing has been done to bring the perpetrators to justice. Violence against journalists is a serious problem for any democracy worthy of the title, but this impunity shows Mexico lacks in a true democratic foundation. Democracy cannot exist without well-informed citizens.
In a recent report by Reporters Sans Frontières the Mexican government was described as an accomplice, while the report accused the countries institutions as “passive and negligent” in addressing the problem. Meanwhile, the International Press Institute argues that the lack of justice “feeds the conviction that journalists can be assassinated at will.”
It is no wonder then that the murderers conduct their atrocities publicly and openly, without fear of persecution, sending a clear warning to already frightened citizens and journalists of the dangers of reporting accurate information. Journalist Bladimir Antuna Vázquez was murdered on the 2 November in Durango. A note was found near his body with the following statement: “This happened to me because I gave information to the military and for writing things that I should have not written. Be careful when preparing stories. Sincerely, Bladimir.”
As a way of confronting this dangerous and critical situation, self-censorship has become a common practice across the spectrum of Mexican media. “We have learned the lesson: To survive, we publish the minimum,” said Alfredo Quijano, editor in chief of the newspaper from Ciudad Juarez in a CPJ report. “Yes, you can do journalism. You can investigate. Then you can publish. But then you have to leave the country quickly.”
This applies to the journalists Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, Horacio Jorge Najera and Luis Aguirre, who are in exile in the US and Canada. These have been joined in recent days by Ricardo Chavez Aldana, reporter for Radio Cañon from Ciudad Juárez, who has sought asylum in the US after receiving death threats by suspected members of organized crime. Previously the reporter had called for justice for the murder of two of his nephews. Despite crossing the border illegally, Aldana has said that “before crossing I already knew that I would be arrested by immigration authorities, but it’s better to be locked up than dead.”
It seems clear, however, that such measures are only temporary and individual solutions to an issue that threatens to become endemic. Only a strong and clear change of attitude by the government can help to improve the solution. To prosecute the murderers and to protect the work of journalists.
This month has seen the introduction of the National Front of Journalists for Free Expression (FNPLE). The FNPLE is an organisation which unites independent journalists, journalists from various media, as well as different trade unions. Some of its main objectives are to halt attacks on freedom of expression and to make the work of all journalists be respected, “because we deserve a country where we can freely exercise our profession and because society has a right to be informed.” High hopes rest on the organisation but only time will tell if it can begin to tackle this abysmal situation.
Fabian Ramirez, Norberto Miranda, Juan Daniel Martinez, Ernesto Montanez, Javier Martín, Eliseo Barrón, Carlos Ortega, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Jean Paul Ibarra, Luis Daniel Mendez, Bladimir Antuna Galindo Vázquez, José Emilio Galindo Robles, all killed during 2009, were remembered by their colleagues at the launch of the new group. Without these 12 citizens Mexican democracy is less democratic; it is, as stated in the last report published by Article 19 and the National Centre for Social Communication “a democracy without democrats.”