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Targeting the media in Mexico
Rights groups call on the government to institutionalise protection of journalists.
Last Modified: 18 Feb 2010 08:45
Since 2003 journalists have been holding protests calling on the government to aggressively pursue investigations of missing and murdered persons working in the media [EPA]

Yeny Yuliana Marchan Arroyo, 23, had been working as a cub crime reporter at the Mexican newspaper Diario 21 for eight months when she was shot three times by an unknown assailant.

The attack occurred as she was riding passenger on a motorbike on her way to cover a deadly car accident in the southern state of Guerrero.

Jean Paul Ibarra Ramírez, the 33-year-old photographer who was driving the motorbike, was also hit twice by the gunman who then got out of his SUV and fatally shot him in the head.

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As police have provided no leads in the criminal investigation - except to state that the weapon used was a pistol provided solely to the Mexican army - it is difficult to conclude whether the attack was carried out because of the reporters' work.

Marchan survived the attack but believes it is freedom of expression that is coming under attack in Mexico.

"It is becoming more difficult for us to exercise our right to freedom of speech," she says.

"Threats and attacks against journalists are ever more frequent."

Most dangerous nation

According to the National Centre of Social Communication (Cencos), a Mexican freedom of expression organisation, and Article 19, a global press freedom advocacy group, Mexico has become the most dangerous Latin America nation for journalists and freedom of expression.

In a report released last Wednesday, Article 19 and Cencos cited 244 incidents of attacks, including 11 assassinations, and intimidation of media workers in 2009 alone.

The report also states that public officials, or people with links to political parties, are the principle perpetrators in 65 per cent of these attacks, and nearly half of the murders. Local authorities are cited most often, while only six per cent of cases are blamed on criminal groups.

Dario Ramirez, the project coordinator for Article 19 in Mexico, said journalists writing stories on police, politics and particularly corruption have been the victims in more than 60 per cent of incidents. He added that such figures link the crimes and the reporters' work.

But Ramirez also believes that governments at both state and federal levels are at fault because they have allowed a culture of impunity to grow by providing few criminal convictions.

He says that freedom of expression has become threatened by the state's failure to respond to these crimes and its incapacity to enforce a penal system.

"It is the responsibility of the state to provide security against violence. We cannot just move away from that decision and say Mexico is at war.

"There is a very clear lack of human rights in the policy of security carried out by the current government at a federal level."

Military deployment

In some Mexican states, several people are killed in the drug war every day

The Cencos report attributed 26 attacks on media workers to military personnel, many of whom have been deployed in the cities by Felipe Calderon, the Mexican president, to fight drug trafficking and its associated violence.

Calderon said in December 2006 that he would commit 45,000 extra troops to fight criminal gangs and drug cartels, who traffic contraband through Central America to the US.

Some critics of Calderon's strategy have accused the army of exacerbating the problem, citing more than 15,000 deaths in drug-related violence nationwide since their urban deployment, with about 1,000 in January 2010 alone.

In the last three years, 22 journalists have been killed, compared to 25 between 2000 and 2006.

The Office of Public Security was unavailable for comment despite repeated calls from Al Jazeera.

Target: Journalists

Mike O'Connor, a consultant in Mexico for the Committee to Protect Journalists, believes that members of the media can come under greater threat than the average Mexican because of the journalistic work they do.

He says there are varied reasons: because journalists are investigating local criminal groups, or governments; reporters refuse to collaborate with criminals or officials; or, corrupt reporters displease those people they are collaborating with.

In 2006, the government established the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Journalists (FEADP) to examine cases concerning freedom of expression at the federal level if deemed necessary.

Last year, 16 cases passed through the FEADP, but only one was brought before a judge.

Ramirez said there is no legal framework that allows an offence to be investigated as a crime against freedom of expression or which provides a definition of a journalist.

"There is a big legal hole in regards to freedom of expression," he said.

He asserted that a legal foundation protecting journalists and press freedoms must be established, and such criminal investigations be federalised to eliminate the problem of proximity of judiciaries and politicians at local levels.

The fact that Marchan and Ibarra, who were attacked in February 2009, were both working as crime reporters adds weight to the argument that they were targeted because they were investigating a case.
 
O'Connor said that those who avoid investigative crime journalism appear to be safer, and are increasing in number.

"Journalists are taking tremendous measures – self-censorship, not covering stories … There is not much journalism any more."

One-party rule

Some in Mexico feel the army's presence has heightened the level of violence

However, O'Connor stressed that unlike most Western nations, journalism in Mexico is not considered a sacred institution and has little public defence, especially in the provinces.

He said that this is partly due to 70 years of one-party rule, that ended in 1997, which gave the public the perception that such institutions are corrupt.

While journalists in Mexico do not face the same kind of dangers their counterparts find in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, they remain vulnerable throughout the country.

According to Article 19 and Cencos, the highest number of cases of intimidation against journalists last year occurred in the southern states of Oaxaca and Veracruz.

They have also said that this is occurring in a continuing context of corruption and criminal organisations infiltrating government.

Ramirez warns that the effect of attacks on freedom of expression, "will be known in 10 years when we will have a very weak press and the future generation will have no journalism to develop".

For media workers, however, the risk remains in the present.

Citing threats, pursuits, attacks and disappearances against her colleagues, Marchan said: "Authorities should provide more investigation and give more importance to all the cases and not abandon them.

"[Abandoning] such cases is one of the main reasons the attacks against journalists continue," she said.

"The danger is constant."

Source:
Al Jazeera
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