Mexican journalists are an endangered species

Rio Grande Mall parking lot after the attack to El Diario photojournalists. (Courtesy of El Diario de Juárez)

Rio Grande Mall parking lot after the attack to El Diario photojournalists. (Courtesy of El Diario de Juárez)

SAN DIEGO — Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights received 608 complaints of injuries against journalists, 66 murders of reporters, and 12 disappearances of journalists, between 2000 and 2011.

“Drug dealers aren’t concerned about killing one reporter or 20 or 30 because nothing is going to happen to them,” said Jorge Luis Aguirre, editor of LaPolaka.com, a news web site that covers drug trafficking and related topics.

Aguirre says the attacks and threats against journalists pose a threat to a free press in México and to the democratic institutions in that country.

Aguirre was recently granted political asylum in the U.S. based on claims he received death threats from the state government of Chihuahua. The journalist continues working as the editor of LaPolaka.com from his residence in El Paso, Texas.

According to México’s National Commission on Human Rights, during the last 10 years, five government agencies – Attorney General of the Republic, Secretary of Public Safety, Secretary of National Defense, Attorney General of Justice in Oaxaca and its counterpart in Veracruz – accounted for the most complaints of rights abuses.

Aguirre says there is complicity between some Mexican politicians and the drug traffickers. “They bought off the governments, bought all the wealth and they took over everything; now the laws are only for them, justice is only for them, the money is for them and the people are defenseless with no place to turn,” he said.

Manuel Zermeño, a business administrator for the town of Rosarito in Baja California, said it’s tough for local police and authorities to combat organized crime with limited resources.

“The war is about power at the city level,” Zermeño said. “It’s hard because we have no tools, old cars, old weapons, but the narcos do have them.”

México is the most dangerous country in the world to work as a journalist, according to a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

According to the México Secretariat of the President’s Office [Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública] during the last 10 years at the national level extortions have increased sevenfold and kidnappings have doubled.

Adela Navarro Bello, general manager of the weekly Zeta in Tijuana, said her publication has witnessed first hand the impact of government corruption and narco trafficking on journalists.

“Impunity is the norm in the case of assassination attempts against journalists and this puts all reporters at risk,” said Navarro Bello. “In México you can assassinate a reporter and come out unpunished.”

The news magazine’s founder Jesus Blancornelas survived several assassination attempts, but died of cancer November 23, 2006. At El Diario de Juárez, veteran crime reporter Armando Rodríguez, known as “el chuco,” was shot to death outside his home in 2008 and a young photographer was assassinated in 2010.

Some news outlets acknowledge they have stopped reporting about organized crime or drug trafficking for fear of also becoming targets.

“Journalists themselves have begun to censor what they write about drug trafficking,” said Jorge Morales, a writer for La Opinión, a Spanish language paper in Los Angeles. “Self censorship began because of the reprisals, because reporters are fearful when they write about narco trafficking, and because of the messages sent by the mafia itself to the media,” he said.

Journalism in México has had to adapt to the criminality the cartels have brought upon the country. Many Mexican media have changed how they publish their stories about corruption and drug trafficking.

“Based on our experiences we’ve learned to practice journalism with greater caution, added responsibility and additional confirmation,” said Navarro Bella of the weekly Zeta.

Zeta no longer publishes the bylines of journalists who write stories that might put their lives in danger; instead it uses the more generic “Zeta investigation.” El Diario de Juárez has also stopped using bylines on stories about drug trafficking, crime and other sensitive subjects.

Eileen Truax, who has worked as a journalist in the U.S. and Mexico, said that reporters are not the only ones who have changed how they write about crime and corruption.

“What has changed is the manner in which news companies are questioning how to react to this,” said Truax.

Organizations like “We Want You Alive” [Los Queremos Vivos in Spanish], founded by a group of Mexican journalists, are fighting for the human rights of journalists and against the violence directed at them. In 2010 the organization carried out marches and protests in several Mexican cities to provide information on the issue. Hundreds of participants have joined the struggle.

Journalists say that their duty as a journalist is to continue to present reality and the news.

“The issue of drug trafficking is a subject that should be covered by all the media and should be exposed,” said Morales. “In a certain sense if you don’t expose it, if you don’t say what’s happening, you are part of the corruption that exists.”

Navarro Bello says that Mexican citizens should use the democratic processes available to them to vote for changes that will end the drug wars and the corruption within the Mexican government.

Truax said he believes Mexican journalists will directly or indirectly continue to report about organized crime and drug trafficking.

“Although they will try to silence journalists, a reporter will continue to be the voice of his society,” she said.

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