Mexico: The Dangerous Climate for Free Speech

A journalist chains his mouth as part of a protest against violent repression of free speech in Mexico City in 2010.

by Allison Dickinson
Special to Sutradhar’s Market

“Journalism in Mexico can be a violent business,” Lucy Conger wrote.  Unfortunately this statement from 1997 has become an understatement in present-day Mexico. The situation for journalists in Mexico has gotten progressively worse, especially during the time since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and launched an offensive against the powerful drug cartels.   The ensuing violence between warring cartels and law enforcement has affected journalists and their work in Mexico; the Committee to Protect Journalists estimated twenty-two journalists had been killed since the Calderón administration took power. Violence from drug cartels, coupled with lack of government protection for journalists, impunity for crimes against journalists, and the rising wave of what some call “narco-censorship” has adversely affected the ability of journalists to work effectively in northern Mexico.

Mexican President Calderón’s offensive against the drug cartels has had widespread effects on journalists, especially those along the border with the United States. Sidney Weintraub and Duncan Wood write that “[t]he rising violence of the conflict between the Mexican state and the cartels in the border regions of northern Mexico and the increasing lack of security for reporters are limiting the ability of the Mexican media to cover antinarcotics activities.” Journalists are ill-protected by law enforcement, hampering their ability to report on the violence and illegal activity in the border regions. The relationship between journalists and the government is suffering as a result, as Douglas Farah writes: “As the violence in Mexico has spread, so has journalists’ distrust of the government and the security forces, amid an overall feeling of isolation. There is the broad perception that the Calderón administration is more worried about its international image than the safety of journalists….” On the bright side, however, Mexican government officials claim that the increased violence might in fact be an indication that the offensive will be successful in the long run, as Nathan Jones notes it comprises “part of a larger story of the Mexican government pulling out of the business of drug trafficking. Cartels are today fighting with each other for fewer points of entry into the United States and responding to the government with violence.” The more the government disengages from drug trafficking and corruption, the better the chances of eradicating drug violence in the long term, so this at least seems to be a step in the right direction. Needless to say, however, the Calderón strategy of fighting fire with fire against the drug cartels in the border regions has been controversial. Whether or not the strategy is successful in the long run, there is no denying that the resulting violence has affected the role of journalists in borderland presses.

While the lack of government protection towards avoiding violence in the first place is worrisome by itself, the increasing trend of impunity in cases of violence against or murder of journalists upholds the drug cartels’ ability to control the press. As Conger noted: “[…The] Mexican government has not only failed to shield journalists against [the pressures not to write about drug violence], it has abdicated its responsibility to investigate these abuses vigorously and prosecute whoever is found responsible.” Javier Garza, an editorial director in the violence-ridden state of Sinaloa, stated, “The bottom line is that criminals attack journalists because they can and because in the great majority of cases [the attacks] are carried out with impunity.” He argues that in order to combat the violence, the federal and state governments should “rapidly investigate any attack, arrest and punish the guilty party, and use that action to dissuade other attacks. But that has not happened.” When the government, both on a national and local level, allows crimes against journalists to happen without investigating and then swiftly and decisively punishing those responsible, it upholds the culture of fear breeding in the border regions.

It is this culture of fear that is controlling the press in northern Mexico. While there is not a great deal of direct censorship from the government in Mexico now, the press is far from free. Cartel censorship is enforced by acts of symbolic violence from the drug cartels, effectively threatening and intimidating journalists into silence in many cases. Tracy Wilkinson names this phenomenon narco-censorship, “when reporters and editors, out of fear or caution, are forced to write what the traffickers want them to write, or to simply refrain from publishing the whole truth….” Journalists are too often forced to choose between their journalistic ethics and their lives. In part, this is due to a trend described by Joanne M. Lisosky and Jennifer R. Henrichsen, that “[j]ournalists are no longer unfortunate casualties but primary targets in a flourishing climate of impunity.” Where journalist deaths or violence against members of the press was once considered an anomaly or an accident, journalists are increasingly becoming actively hunted in Mexico. The new era of drug violence has also eliminated some of the previous codes of conduct surrounding violence against journalists, ushering in a regime of extreme – and often unexpected – retribution. “[S]ymbolic or graphic violence has increased in recent years, whereby the cartels commit specific gruesome actions… in a way that is designed to send a message,” Weintraub and Wood note.  The Committee to Protect Journalists provides one example of symbolic violence that is unfortunately becoming the norm in northern Mexico: reporter Bladimir Antuna García from Durango was found dead of strangulation with a note near his body reading “This happened to me for giving information to the military and for writing too much.”   The cartels make no secret of killing journalists for writing “too much,” instead spinning the violence as an example for those left living to keep quiet or risk encountering the same fate. Farah says drug cartels “routinely threaten journalists with kidnapping, torture, and death if they do not follow the ‘narco code’ of conduct in disseminating or withholding information in accordance with cartel interests. The traffickers often carry out their threats in gruesome and public ways designed to reinforce the terror and further silence the media.”

Sallie Hughes describes a survey she created to examine the cartels’ effects on the media that showed a fourth of the 126 journalists she interviewed reported they had been threatened, leading her to conclude that “[t]he influence that drug traffickers have wielded on newspaper content is evident….” Weintraub and Wood explain that the government’s inability to protect journalists has led to this decision on the part of journalists to censor themselves and avoid writing about drug cartels and violence. Farah gives one example of this self-censorship that shows a direct linkage between Mexico’s weak government presence in the north and the erosion of investigative journalism:

In some cases this has led to a complete and public surrender of journalistic decision-making to the drug trafficking organizations. In one noted editorial after the September 2010 killing of one of its young photographers, “El Diario de Juárez” begged the Juárez cartel, engaged in a bloody war with the Sinaloa cartel, to tell the newspaper what it could and could not write, given the reality that the drug groups ‘are, at this time, the de facto authorities’ in the city.

Without a strong government presence, journalists are increasingly forced to answer to the drug cartels rather than the laws of the country, hampering the freedom of the press. In Reynosa, a border town in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that “[t]he Gulf cartel controls much of the local government… from law enforcement down to street vendor permitting…. That story has not been reported in the local news media, however, because the cartel also controls the press.”

Drug cartels battling over routes into the United States, the primary destination for drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, as Marc Lacey writes in The New York Times:

have shot up newsrooms, kidnapped and killed staff members and called up the media regularly with threats that were not the least bit veiled…. ‘They mean what they say,’ said one of the many terrified journalists who used to cover the police beat in Reynosa. ‘I’m censoring myself. There’s no other way to put it. But so is everybody else.’

Journalists in the border regions who give interviews – almost always anonymously due to a fear of retribution from the cartels – frequently bemoan the weak presence of government and its effects on their work.

Many feel ill-protected, fearful, and disappointed in the government’s lack of reaction to their plight. The issue of a weak, powerless, or sometimes corrupt government and law enforcement in border regions makes it easier for drug cartels to carry out their work, both in smuggling huge amounts of drugs and weapons across the border, and in oppressing journalism and free speech. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes:

In controlling the press, the cartel wants to avoid ‘heating up the plaza,’ a phrase that means drawing too much attention to the drug marketplace, according to journalists. They said the cartel easily controls the local government but wants the federal government to stay away from Reynosa and the state of Tamaulipas, the area the Gulf cartel dominates. ‘Don’t think the federal government doesn’t know what we are suffering,’ said [a] senior editor. ‘But if the plaza is not hot, if there is no news coverage, then the federal government can pretend it doesn’t know. If the citizens are kept ignorant, then the pressure for federal intervention is less.’

Drug trafficking organizations are aware that the media have agenda-setting powers and the ability to influence the government in Mexico; as a result, they keep journalists, editors, and photographers under a close watch. The more attention reporters are able to bring to an issue – whether drug smuggling, government corruption, or violence – the more the public will clamor for change and for the violence to stop. It is difficult for citizens to protest violence that never officially took place. The drug cartels’ violent pressuring and censorship of the media is a direct recognition of that fact.

When journalists are poorly protected, violence against them cannot be avoided; when there is then also no punishment for those who kidnap, torture, and kill journalists, drug traffickers’ violent behaviors are enabled. As a result, journalists in Mexico are being forced into silence, either by way of direct violence and threats, or via intimidation in the phenomenon of “narco-censorship.” With a weak government presence in the border regions of Mexico, Alfredo Corchado reports in The Dallas Morning News that “[t]he term ‘investigative journalism’ is a thing of the past,” said an editor in Reynosa… speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘Journalism today is about surviving another day, plain and simple.'” This brutal cycle of violence and retribution against reporters led Weintraub and Wood to state that the government’s inability to “protect the freedom of the press has seriously diminished the right of Mexican citizens to be informed about the effectiveness of the government’s antinarcotics efforts,” continuing on to state that “[u]ntil the security of journalists is improved, the ability of the Mexican press to engage in investigative journalism will be severely compromised.”

For more on the Drug War in Mexico, please see:

(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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