With all the conflict in the world in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, it’s surprising and disturbing that the most lethal place to be a journalist in 2019 is Mexico.
At least ten journalists have been killed in the Latin American country this year, according to media watchdog organizations Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Some organizations place the number even higher. The next most deadly countries for reporters are Afghanistan and Somalia with three killings each.
Just this summer, five journalists have been murdered in Mexico. On August 24, the 42-year-old Nevith Condés Jaramillo became the latest victim. Found stabbed to death in Tejupilco in the State of Mexico, Condés Jaramillo had run a local news website.
If Mexico is indeed a democracy, which it claims to be, then a free press is vital. Free media help citizens understand whether or not a society is functioning properly. Is the economy in good shape? Is the health care system serving the sick and the healthy? Is the justice system working for all? Are politicians being held accountable? What are the political, economic, and cultural elites up to?
As killings continue to rise, the Mexican government doesn’t seem to want to make the safety of journalists a priority.
Impunity for Killing Journalists
In June, at the start of the deadly summer, the Committee to Protect Journalists called attention to the impunity for murdering journalists during a press freedom summit in Mexico City.
“Let me be clear,” said Executive Director Joel Simon. “The level of violence and impunity against Mexican journalists represents a crisis for this country, and a direct threat to Mexico’s democracy.” He called on the Mexican president to address impunity and violence against the press.
When journalists are not able to report without censorship, without fear of imprisonment or repression, without threats and violence, there is no real democracy. In its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. says people have the right to freedom of opinion and expression and may “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
While the safety and security of journalists in Mexico have long been a problem, there are unfortunately no signs of improvement.
Dangers for Mexican Journalists
In my international mass communication course at Colorado State University, I always devote a day to talk about the dangers for journalists in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Sadly, this semester, I’ve had to add substantially to my lecture notes and slides for that upcoming discussion.
I thought about the plight of journalists in Mexico over the summer on a family vacation, as I relaxed on the beach in Playa del Carmen and walked around the incredible El Castillo pyramid at the wondrous pre-Columbian Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Although the Riviera Maya is a relatively safe tourist zone along the Caribbean coast, the occasional passing truckload of heavily armed police would remind me of the stories of violence against journalists in Mexico we often hear about in the United States.
Recently in class, we talked about cultural privileges in the United States that not everyone around the world enjoys. One of those is a free press. While U.S. journalists have seen an increase in verbal and physical attacks in the past two years, we thankfully still have free media. I’m not sure I can say the same about our southern neighbors.
A few years back, one of my graduate students did her master’s thesis on how the El Paso Times was covering violence in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border. We talked about the safety issues she would encounter when joining the American journalists into Ciudad Juárez. Afterward, she explained that the reporters didn’t linger – they talked to whomever they needed to talk with and got back quickly to El Paso.
These days, I don’t think I’d recommend similar research in Juárez. And that’s a shame because we all need to draw attention to what’s going on in Mexico and try to get our political leaders to pressure the Mexican government to protect journalists.
Society’s Eyes and Ears
We can support the efforts of press watchdog groups. News media should continue to focus attention on the issue of journalists under duress around the world. Governments around the world need to be held accountable for atrocities against anyone, but especially journalists because they are a society’s eyes and ears.
For example, the world now knows much more about the government in Saudi Arabia after worldwide attention focused on the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. Posthumously, Khashoggi, along with other killed or imprisoned journalists, was named Time magazine’s person of the year.
Just last week, as U.S. officials accuse Iran of being behind the attack on Saudi oil facilities and consider retaliatory actions against the country, the Khashoggi assassination has again been in the news. Some argue that the U.S. military should not defend a government responsible for such a blatant murder of a journalist.
Regarding Mexico, it seems like news stories about the dangers to journalists have sadly become more frequent. On a Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I listened to NPR’s Weekend Edition. Host Scott Simon talked with Javier Garza, a Mexican journalist and security expert for journalists. He, too, spoke about the recent killing of reporter Nevith Condés Jaramillo.
Garza explained that “…the journalists that are being targeted in Mexico are local journalists doing the work that no other news organization, the large news organizations are not doing, which is expose corruption, expose crime, expose government negligence in the localities and cities and towns across Mexico, and we are being deprived of those voices.”
Many Mexican journalists are leaving home as violence against them increases: https://t.co/ZVrc4WrsAI via @Pajaropolitico
The government has taken no new steps to protect them, despite a rising death toll: https://t.co/jVXaOJr5kj
— InSight Crime (@InSightCrime) September 18, 2019
Garza said President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador talked about the importance of a free press while campaigning, but that the federal government has done little to protect journalists or to prosecute those responsible for killing them. “Each attack is motivated by the fact that the previous one was never punished, was never even prosecuted.”
He also noted that the Mexican president has criticized journalists and their work as “fake news” if their stories are critical of the government or expose governmental corruption – similar to the criticisms of President Donald J. Trump makes to media in the United States.
Media in the US
On the Reporters without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, the United States dropped three places from the previous year to 48 out of 180 ranked countries, just behind Romania, Chile, and Tonga. Mexico stands at 144.
The NGO cited increasingly hostile attacks from the U.S. government on the press as one reason for the decline, noting that “President Trump has continued to declare the press as the ‘enemy of the American people’ and ‘fake news’ in an apparent attempt to discredit critical reporting.”
Governments in a democracy have a responsibility to support a free press. Mexican officials must improve the criminal justice system to ensure that the murderers of journalists are brought to justice – for democracy’s sake.
With the sad state of journalist safety in Mexico these days, normally I’d urge U.S. government officials to increase the pressure on Mexican authorities to better ensure the safety of journalists. But between our president’s obsession with immigrants and the border wall and his incessant attacks against our nation’s own journalists, I’m not sure what is possible on the freedom-of-press front if it involves President Trump and Mexico.
At the very least, I can do my best to draw attention to this sorrowful situation involving journalists under fire.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.