Mexico: Journalists & the Drug War

Demonstrators hold up signs in support of missing journalist Alfredo Jiménez Mota in a march from 2005.

by Rick Rockwell

Later this month, this author marks a rather sad anniversary:  15 years of writing about media repression in Latin America.  That first article was a piece for The Chicago Tribune about a Mexican journalist who was granted political asylum in the U.S. after he was tortured. (You can no longer find the original online, but the sequel is here.)

This came to mind this week, when news streamed across the Twitter feed and through e-mail about newsrooms under attack in Honduras and Peru.  And then while writing this more news came over the electronic transom about a journalist killed in Honduras.  Not to mention, a notice from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) about journalists under attack in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

CPJ and other journalism organizations rank Iraq as the second most dangerous country for the media in the world.  (Pakistan gets the dubious honor this year as being the most dangerous country so far.)  But despite great gains in democracy and the construction of civil society in the past generation, Latin America still lags behind the developed world when it comes to safeguarding free speech.  Members of the media in Latin America still face inordinate amounts of violence.  The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) says 24 journalists were murdered in the region this year.  Mexico and Brazil both rank in CPJ’s Top Ten Most Dangerous Countries.  For these reasons, Latin American countries are often lumped in with Iraq and Pakistan where the War on Terror still lingers.

CPJ, IAPA and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) all track these gruesome statistics. The collection of official acronyms just adds to the cold truth when analyzing these cases:  there’s a war on against journalists and the body count has climbed this past decade, not declined like in the 1990s.

These days in Latin America, journalists are primary targets in the Drug War that knows few boundaries.  And the drug lords are winning.  Look at the example of Alfredo Jiménez Mota of El Imparcial in Hermosillo, Mexico. Jiménez was kidnapped six years ago, and although many think he was murdered, his body has not turned up yet. Both the Mexican federal government and the state of Sonora investigated.  Special prosecutors were appointed. But when details pointed to state officials tied to Sonora’s attorney general, the investigative process stalled.  Today, because of Jiménez and the threats to other reporters at El Imparcial, the paper has curtailed its reporting about drug cartels and crime and dismantled its investigative team.  And El Imparcial, at one time, had earned a reputation as one of the better investigative newspapers in Mexico.

The killings have gone beyond traditional journalists now. In Nuevo Laredo this fall, four people who authorities believe were using social media to report and warn the populace about drug gangs were then killed by the cartels.

All of these statistics, reports from concerned groups with numerous acronyms, case upon tragic case, the miasma of corruption:  it’s enough to numb the mind.  It’s easy for journalists to forget that the history of Mexico shows prominent journalists have faced execution or other violence as a means of censorship since at least the 1970s.  Mistakenly, journalists wrote in 2010 of the case of Jose Luis Aguirre, saying he was one of the first Mexican journalists granted asylum in the U.S. (Surprisingly, Reuters was the news agency slightly off the mark in that instance.) Aguirre’s case was important and his work valiant, but he was not in the vanguard as the media would have us believe. Perhaps journalists also go into a sort of psychological denial; wanting to believe the current crisis is so bad that only the current news of the Drug War exists, denying all the previous crises stretching back more than a generation.

And separated, as many are, from the front lines of the Drug War, these stories of journalism repression (of free speech literally being strangled to death) also cause a loss of heart and caring.  One example the Knight Foundation cited in a report on media repression was about IAPA’s Proyecto Impunidad campaign.  When that project first started, it was met with enthusiasm and many newspapers throughout the Americas ran public service ads supporting the free speech campaign.  But after eight years, the excitement about the project waned and now just a bit more than a quarter of IAPA’s member newspapers openly support the free speech campaign.  And these are newspaper editors and publishers who can’t be convinced to publicly stand up and be counted on this issue.  If they can’t or won’t, how do they expect the public to care?

It’s why many people take free speech rights for granted.  That’s the sad conclusion for this sad anniversary month.

(The photo is from the Knight Foundation via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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7 Responses to Mexico: Journalists & the Drug War

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  6. Jessica, thanks for your comment. The issue in Juarez and elsewhere in northern Mexico where the drug lords seem to have ultimate power is a type of institutionalized self-censorship. I visited all the major newspaper newsrooms in Juarez in the mid-1990s and even then reporters did not want to be seen openly talking to someone writing about censorship and the Drug War. I had to have meetings with reporters at their homes to have real conversations. Now, it is even worse.

    I also wonder about the differences in the culture of journalism in different countries facing the violence of the Drug War. Of course, one never knows about the reaction to violence until one is placed in that position. But why is it El Diario in Juarez last year wrote an editorial basically surrendering to the drug lords and giving them ultimate editorial control, but yet in the years of this very same struggle in Colombia, papers there did not resort to the same self-censorship or surrender on this level? The cartels in Colombia destroyed the offices of El Espectador, one of the country’s most respected papers, by using a car bomb (and that wasn’t the only time they used large bombs) in the 1980s, but the paper limped back to life. The cartels assassinated the paper’s top editor and yet the institution fought back and continued publishing, certainly with precautions but not with giving the cartels a blank check to tell them what to print.

  7. Jessica Andrews says:

    The cycle facing journalists in Mexico and other countries is really terrible. They want to report on what’s happening to help solve the problem of the drug war, but if they speak out they face severe retribution from the drug cartels.
    I think this quote from Alfredo Quijano, Editor-in-Chief of Norte de Ciudad Juarez, illustrates the environment of self-censorship. “We have learned the lesson: To survive, we publish the minimum.”

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