A British human rights organization called Article 19
titled its human rights report on Mexico’s media for 2015
“M.I.E.D.O.,” an acronym of the Spanish words that follow,
and itself the Spanish word for fear.
The report sums up the prevailing fear with those catchwords:
“…fear fed by the attacks on the media and journalists;
impunity for such attacks; a State (Estado) that doesn’t respond;
the weak democracy threatening free speech;
and opacity in the dealings of government agencies
responsible for ensuring the human rights and security
of advocates and journalists.”
José Rubén Alonso González
Restraint, uncertainty, fear, crisis, death, impunity… The death count of murdered journalists in Mexico is growing. The attacks aren’t even being controlled, much less reduced; and the ways and means are diversifying. Uncertainty fed by crisis and oxygenated by impunity stalks the country. But while freedom of speech may be bathed in red, even amid the threats and direct attacks that cause such fear, it hasn’t been abandoned and is being fought for.
The Human Rights organization founded in 1987 with a specific mandate and focus on the defense and promotion of freedom of expression and of information worldwide named itself Article 19. As to be expected, that article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Last year its Mexico and Central American office presented its 2015 report on violence against the media in Mexico, written in Spanish. With its penchant for eye-catching names, it titled the report “M.I.E.D.O. Medios/Impunidad/Estado/Democracia/Opacidad” (Media/Impunity/State/Democracy/Opacity). Miedo is also the Spanish word for fear.
On presenting its report, Article 19 director Darío Ramírez stressed that “Fear is endemic in all newsrooms in Mexico to a greater or lesser degree, and it’s not possible to do responsible, conscientious public interest journalism with fear. Impunity, its iron ally, reminds us that this fear is based on the reality of press experiences in Mexico and its objective is to terrorize anyone who tries to exercise free speech.”
In early March of this year, Article 19 presented its 2016 report “Libertades en Resistencia” (Freedoms in Resistance), which shows that difficulties in expressing free speech and attacks on journalists aren’t waning; they’re increasing. These statements agree with other independent organizations and observers of free speech in Mexico and internationally, such as the Mexican Association for the Right to Information (AMEDI), Reporters without Borders, Freedom House, the Inter-American Press Association and the Organization of American States’ Office of the Special Rapporteur for Free Speech.
Manuel Buendía: The first reference point
In the report on free speech and attacks on Mexico’s press, the benchmark is set by Manuel Buendía Tellezgirón (1926-1984), a Mexican journalist and columnist murdered on May 30, 1984. Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa’s 2012 book Buendía. El primer asesinato de la narcopolítica en México (Buendía. The first narco-political murder in Mexico) retraced the storyline in the murder of Buendía, author of the “Private Network” column, in which he documented his journalistic investigations laying bare the inner workings of public power. That column was an essential reference point not only in Mexico City but throughout the country, where it was reprinted by various local media.
Manuel Buendía didn’t live to see the changes that began to take shape in 1988 or the transfer of political power in 2000 with the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s defeat after 70 years and the ascent of the National Action Party to the presidency. He didn’t see the emergence of a left wing united around the Party of the Democratic Revolution, the opposition’s triumphs in the Mexican states, the emergence of human rights commissions or the electoral institutions’ transformations. Although he saw none of this, he had observed and documented the seeds of collusion between drug-trafficking and politics which, with the political changeover at the start of the 21st century, led Mexico into a “war on drugs” and an exponential increase in violence, murders, disappearances and the Army in the streets throughout the country.
At the beginning of the changeover, Buendía’s murder was an “isolated case,” although it became the benchmark for all the attacks on free speech that followed. Today it’s the starting point for the growing violence against journalists and communicators.
Wealthy companies with poor journalists
As in all other areas, information and communication technologies have affected journalism and created transformational crises. The incorporation of technologies such as Internet and its various applications affect the production, distribution and consumption of journalistic information. Paradigmatic changes in the media and in communication itself course through the media companies, which opt for “bargain journalists” to reduce their payroll costs, hiring low-paid young graduates of journalism and communication courses and sacking experienced professional journalists.
Federal and local governments increase their investment in advertising and content generation with no clear rules, especially in television and radio companies. In 2013 all federal agencies combined spent over 5 billion pesos (the equivalent of US$405.5 million at the time) on government ads. Two years later, Mexico’s federal government spent over 9 billion pesos (roughly US$569 million at the exchange rate by then). Wealthy companies make poor journalists vulnerable.
A bloody start to 2017
The gory start to this year confirmed that Mexico ranks among countries with the highest risk for journalists and social advocates. On March 2, 2017, it was confirmed that Cecilio Pineda Birto, director of the newspaper La Voz de la Tierra Caliente who also wrote for El Universal in Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero, close to the border with Michoacán, was killed while waiting for his pick-up truck to be washed. Seventeen days later, Ricardo Monlui Cabrera, director of the newspaper El Político and columnist for the Diario de Xalapa, in the urban center of Veracruz, was killed in the municipality of Yanga. And only four days after that, on March 23, Miroslava Breach Velducea, who wrote for La Jornada and El Norte, was killed in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, home of the latter newspaper.
On the morning of April 14, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) announced that a meeting was planned with federal government attorneys or units specializing in freedom of expression in coordination with the attorney general’s Office for the Protection of Human Rights (PGR) “to learn about and exchange good practices leading to the breakdown of impunity in attacks on journalists, to seek uniformity in enforcing the human right of procuring justice.” Hours later, at midday, a correspondent for the , Maximino Rodríguez Palacios, was riddled with bullets in La Paz, Baja California Sur. Four journalists killed in less than six weeks.
Deaths and more deaths
The Article 19 report on Mexico has documented 103 murders of journalists between 2000 and March 23, 2017. The “bloodiest” states are Veracruz with 22 homicides, Tamaulipas and Chihuahua with 13 each, Oaxaca with 12 and Guerrero with 10. Two elements converge in the first three states: the high level of government corruption and drug trafficking. Oaxaca and Guerrero are also characterized by teachers’ social struggles and by poverty.
Several cases in previous years were emblematic: Regina Martínez, correspondent for Proceso, was killed on April 28, 2012, attributed by authorities to “a crime of passion.” Gregorio Martínez, a reporter for Noticias Sur and El Liberal del Sur, was killed on February 5, 2014, due to “personal differences” according to the authorities. Rubén Espinosa, photo-journalist for , Cuartoscuro and AVC Noticias, was killed in Mexico City along with three women on July 31, 2015, after fleeing Veracruz due to government threats. The authorities’ line of investigation linked the crime in that case to robbery and drug use. Police authorities linked the murder of Anabel Flores, reporter for El Sol de Orizaba, on February 9, 2016, to organized crime.
Article 19 defines the unvarying element in these and other cases investigated by both local judicial authorities and the attorney general’s Special Prosecutor’s Office for Attending to Crimes Against Free Speech (FEADLE) as “to discredit the link between journalistic practice and the crime perpetrated against journalists.”
The impunity for homicides and attacks on journalists and the media is alarming. In 2016, FEADLE only opened 129 investigations into the 426 attacks recorded by Article 19 that year. In total it opened just 906 investigations of the 2,020 recorded attacks against the press between 2010 and 2016, which represents 44.85%. More shocking yet, only three convictions were obtained in the same six-year period against the attackers in 798 prior FEADLE investigations.
Authorities on the sidelines
While civil organizations such as Article 19 provide a more detailed follow-up to the situation of journalists and their means of exercising free speech, the authorities remain passive and ineffective about finding out what happens and dealing with it, further reinforcing impunity. The records prove it. For example, while Article 19 has the public record for 11 murders of journalists in 2016, the CNDH only has 2 and FEADLE only 1. And of 426 attacks on journalists recorded in 2016, the CNDH only opened 92 files on acts committed against communicators, and has issued no specific recommendations to date on those 92 cases. In previous years the CNDH only issued two general recommendations.
Who? How? Where?
Between 2013 and 2016, 1,479 attacks were recorded on journalists and media. The perpetrators were listed as “public officials” in 46.9% of those cases, “unknown” in 21%, undefined “individuals” in 20%, “organized crime” in 6.7% and “political parties” in 5.5%. Assuming those aggressors are correctly identified, the situation appears more critical when we take note that “public servants” were allegedly responsible for 165 of the recorded attacks on journalists in 2015 whereas by the following year such attacks by presumed public servants had increased to 226, a 37% increase to 53.1% of the total of 426 attacks that year.
The most frequent kinds of attacks last year were physical or material (81), intimidation (79), threats (76), detention (58), harassment and bullying (43). Of the 226 public officials recorded as the attackers, 91 were state employees, 79 were municipal and 56 were from the federal government. As to the victims of the attacks, 274 were men, 97 were women, and 55 were some kind of media or social group.
The places where journalists and the media were most attacked were Mexico City (71), Oaxaca (60), Veracruz (58), Puebla (28) and Guerrero (26). Attacks on women have increased annually from 2013 to 2016: 59, 63, 84 and 97. The main focus of the attacks were reporters (184 cases), then photo-journalists (56 cases), followed by the media themselves (46) and their directors (37). Those who work in digital media, including the social networks, were the most frequently attacked (189 cases in 2016), followed by print media (103), radio stations (54), freelance or independent reporters (31), television (22), news agencies (13), magazine writers (10) and those working in “several or unknown” media (4).
The media attacked the most often last year were El Piñero de la Cuenca from Veracruz (15 attacks), followed by Aristegui Noticias (12 attacks), La Jornada (10), Reforma (10), Proceso magazine (7), and the website Animal Político (6).
Carmen Aristegui and her team, made up of Rafael Cabrera, Daniel Lizárraga, Irving Huerta and Sebastián Barragán, have become a focus of particular attention, especially since government pressure forced Aristegui to be “rescinded” from working for MVS when she and her collaborators revealed in November 2014 that Angélica Rivera, the wife of President Peña Nieto, had purchased a mansion, the “White House,” for US$7 million, custom-built for her by the Grupo Giga, which has been linked to Peña Nieto since he was the governor of the state of Mexico. Since then, Aristegui has been subjected to judicial pressures and harassment. She took her case and the situation of Mexico’s press and journalists to the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on April 7, 2016.
Attacks have escalated
During President Felipe Calderón’s administration (2006-2012), a slight decrease in attacks on journalists and the media was recorded during two of the middle years—238 attacks in 2009 and 162 in 2010—but they began to increase in his last two years, with 172 in 2011 and 207 in 2012. Attacks escalated under Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration and are still increasing steadily: 330 were recorded in 2013, 326 the following year, 397 in 2015 and 426 in 2016.
Ten homicides of journalists were recorded each year in 2006, 2008 and 2010. But in 2016, 11 of the attacks resulted in murder: 4 in Oaxaca, 3 in Veracruz, and one each in Tabasco, Guerrero, Puebla and Chihuahua, more than in any year since 2000.
Looking at the record of homicides and disappearances by each six-year presidential term, 22 journalists were murdered and 5 disappeared under Vicente Fox (2000-2006); and 48 murdered and 15 disappeared under Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), while 27 journalists have already been reported murdered and another 3 missing as of 2016, with two years of Peña Nieto’s term still to go.
And the spying expands
Since 2015, a new mode of spying on journalists began in Mexico: intercepting personal communication. Formerly journalists would simply be tailed, while today the method is to plant listening devices in their communication equipment. One of the most striking cases was that of Rafael Cabrera, of the Aristegui Noticias team, who has been followed to digitally “wiretap” his equipment ever since he began his research into the First Lady’s “White House.”
The Digital Rights Defense Network (R3D) proved that the Mexican federal government and local governments have acquired equipment and contracted digital surveillance services in order to intercept communications. And documents leaked from the NSO Group, an Israeli cyberarms dealer that reportedly sells sophisticated hacking tools to governments, revealed that the Mexican government spent more than US$15 million on spyware. It also proved that “from 2013 to 2015 the appointed authorities have made 3,182 applications for judicial authorization to carry out interceptions of private communications. The CISEN, Federal Police and PGR lead the number of applications.”
Article 19’s 2016 “Libertades en Resistencia” report states: “Findings related to the number of prior inquiries in which a means of surveillance has been used and which has resulted in criminal prosecution suggest that approximately 90% of those who could have been monitored with a view to criminal prosecution have not been charged with any crime before a judge and in a large majority of cases the investigating authorities use surveillance tools against people for whom there is no evidence they have committed a crime.” All this explains why M.I.E.D.O. exists.
José Rubén Alonso González is a journalist in Mexico and an envío correspondent.