Mexico’s Government Is Failing Journalists

Less than a month into 2022, three journalists in Mexico have been killed. The most recent of these, Lourdes Maldonado López, was shot to death in Tijuana last Sunday, despite enrolling in a police protection program. Journalists across Mexico have taken to the streets to demand the government do more to protect them from these escalating attacks.

“This is a new awakening for Mexican journalists,” editor-in-chief of Eje Central Maria Idalia Gómez told the Committee to Protect Journalists. “[W]hen Lourdes was killed… it was just too much.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or A.M.L.O., promised a full investigation into the killings. But journalists across Mexico have been quick to note his own hostility to the press. A.M.L.O. often undermines and discredits critical news sources on social media, and, as the New York Times noted, hosts a weekly show called “Who’s who in lies of the week.”

“[T]he discrediting by the president is seen by others as permission to attack,” media advocate Leopoldo Maldonado (no relation to Lourdes Maldonado) says.

Leopoldo Maldonado’s anger is shared by many in Mexico, as frustration and grief over their ever-growing number of dead peers pushes journalists to call for change. And despite promises by politicians like A.M.L.O., the government can do much more than conduct a simple investigation, because the inaction of the Mexican government is at the heart of the issue. Journalist violence isn’t solely the result of powerful cartels. Rather, journalist violence in Mexico is symptom of poor government policy, which creates dangerous social conditions, fails to hold perpetrators of violence accountable or build systems that protect journalists, and both directly and indirectly creates policies that hinder journalists.

As Bradley E. Holland and Viridiana Rios discuss in their 2017 study, attacks are more likely not in places where cartels are strongest, but where rivalries and competitions make them weaker. When cartels “compete for local territory,” the authors write, journalists’ “coverage is detrimental to one side or another, increasing the likelihood that they are subject to violent attacks.” The Mexican government’s strategy of “cutting off the head” of cartels “leads to greater levels of competition between criminals attempting to fill the subsequent power vacuum,” which Holland and Rios note “indirectly put[s] journalists at risk.”

But again, looking at specific acts of violence only describes the surface level of the problem.

In an interview with the New York Times, Leopoldo Maldonado blames the deaths on a lack of protection from the government. “[T]he authorities’ unwillingness and inability to combat the festering impunity … fuels these killings,” he says. This impunity is creating what Maldonado calls “zones of silence,” where attacks on journalists drive away anyone reporting on those areas. These zones are “spreading” across Mexico, Maldonado says. “They’re propagating like a pandemic.”

Author Joe Simon wrote about the role violence plays in censoring journalists in the 2021 book Media Capture. Simon exhorts the importance of “vanguard journalists,” the small number of journalists who operate outside government or media conglomerate control and provide in-depth media coverage around controversial, repressed, and/or little-known stories. These stories are key sources in the modern media landscape, but also make their authors targets for those who dislike their coverage. Because these vanguard journalists are so rare, when governments fail to protect them, the topics they once covered disappear from public awareness. For a vanguard journalist, “death equals censorship.”

Although it’s easy to assume that Lourdes Maldonado López’s attack was journalism related, Vincente Calderon, editor of Tijuana Press, cautioned N.P.R. not to jump to conclusions. “Unfortunately, in this city and in this country, they kill cops, they kill lawyers, they kill doctors or even minors.” The violence, Calderon says, “is not just against journalists. The problem is that violence is against everybody. And it’s very easy to kill somebody and not face consequences in this country.”

It’s this combination of poor social conditions and legal impunity that makes these attacks so rampant. In a 2017 study of journalist violence in Mexico from 2010-2015, Julieta Alejandra Brambila found that attacks against journalists were not evenly distributed across Mexico. Rather, Brambila found that Mexican journalists “are more likely to be lethally injured in those states with high levels of social violence, internal conflict, severe violations of human rights, and low democratic development,” specifying that “anti-press violence and impunity mirrors a major problem in the functionality of the state and political institutions at large.”

Violence against the press in Mexico is a systemic problem and requires a systemic solution. To stop the attacks, the Mexican government must address the layers of policy that fail to protect, undermine the safety of, or actively encourage attacks against journalists. Creating stronger safeguards for press in Mexico will not only protect the lives of hardworking journalists but also strengthen civil social networks and allow for the systems of support and critique necessary for a strong democracy.

In 2018, authors Amy K. Lehr, Sarah Baumunk, and Linnea Sandin released an extensive report through the Center for Strategic and International Studies titled “Mexican Civil Society: Reclaiming Space Amidst Impunity.” Lehr, Baumunk, and Sandin provide a detailed analysis of the effect the Mexican government’s policies have had on Mexico’s civil society, specifically in regards to human rights advocates and journalists. The three also recommend a number of measures that the government of Mexico can implement to protect journalists and create stronger Civil Service Organizations (C.S.O.s).

The report begins by scrutinizing the policies which the authors claim have “failed to yield results at best and has increased the vulnerability of human rights defenders at worst,” and recommending their amendment or repeal. Specifically, the report references the 2004 “Federal Law for the Promotion of Activities Undertaken by Civil Society Organizations” and the 2012 “Federal Law to Prevent and Identify Transactions using resources of illicit origin,” both of which the authors criticize for creating unnecessary and costly hoops to jump through. These policies disproportionately punish local and grassroots C.S.O.s who don’t have the resources to meet all the requirements. Instead, the authors encourage the government to “open policy dialogue with civil society actors to consider revising the Federal Law for the Promotion of Activities Undertaken by Civil Society Organizations, as well as other controversial laws with adverse effects on C.S.O.s.”

The report also criticizes the Mexican government’s surveillance and harassment of its critics, including journalists and rights activists. The authors connect interviews with several people, including “three opposition politicians and 12 journalists and human rights defenders [who] reported that they had been targeted by spyware on their cellphones,” to the Pegasus spyware program the Mexican government has admitted to buying. Despite concluding that in the past “the Mexican government lack[ed] both the political will and the ability to protect many of these activists, and in some cases may be part of the problem,” the report still implores the government to transparently investigate these claims so that journalists and critics alike can trust that the government is working with, not against, them.

An area the report examines in detail is the inaction of the Mexican government and judicial system in protecting journalists from attack. The government is “generally incompetent in investigating and prosecuting crimes against journalists,” the authors bluntly say, writing that by 2018, “more than 1,000 investigations ha[d] been opened into crimes against journalists, but prosecutors in Mexico ha[d] only obtained 3 convictions.” Because of this, “corruption and lack of transparency at all levels of government significantly affect Mexican politics and civic space.” More specifically to journalists and advocates, “the high rates of impunity in the country mean that criminals feel emboldened to commit crimes because of the lack of accountability and the inability of victims to access justice.” One of the main recommendations the report makes is for the government to “improve efforts against impunity and strengthen judicial systems,” through increasing transparency and working with C.S.O.s directly.

Lehr, Baumunk, and Sandin’s report was published in December of 2018, when President A.M.L.O. was newly elected, and was optimistic about his stated commitment to human rights and C.S.O.s. But in the three years since, the president has failed to keep many of his promises and, as is evident by this month’s killings, has not curbed violence against journalists.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists noted, Lourdes Maldonado López’s death has stirred widespread outrage among journalists and caught the attention of the world. With all eyes on Mexico for the time being, now is the time for journalists and advocates around the world to support their Mexican counterparts – to give C.S.O.s and journalist organizations the international backing to force the Mexican government to implement badly-needed protections and end this cycle of violence.


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