Espionage, Murder, Bribes: The Perilous Life of Journalists in Mexico

September 25, 2017

September, 19 2017 (Panampost)

By Fernando Valdés

In Mexico, freedom of expression is fully recognized by the law, and in day-to-day life it seems to be absolute; however, this is only true until the moment when truth clears the blurry line between what is political and what is criminal.

“Beware. They are coming for you,” the witness of a criminal investigation told Javier Valdez, a journalist for newspaper La Jornada. The witness assured him that his name was on a drug trafficker’s blacklist. A week later, on May 15 2017, Valdez was killed in broad daylight in downtown Culiacán, capital of the northern state of Sinaloa and territory of the Sinaloa Cartel.

“Remember what happened to Regina Martínez,” was one of the threats received by Rubén Espinoza, photojournalist and collaborator of Proceso magazine, referring to the murder of his colleague in Veracruz in 2012. Rubén publicly denounced the threat and also voiced that he felt like he was being spied on after his work uncovered the repression of teacher and student movements who criticized the government of Javier Duarte, then governor of the state of Veracruz.

On July 31 2015, Rubén was murdered along with three women in Mexico City. Among them was Nadia Vera, an activist and friend of Rubén who had helped to document the arbitrary detentions, threats and torture of the Veracruz state police on students and teachers. Nadia and Rubén were in Mexico City for the same reason: they felt safer there than in Veracruz, the deadliest state for journalists in the country.

The murders are more than figures, but since the year 2000 to date, 109 journalists have been killed in Mexico. That is more than all of the journalists killed in Afghanistan, India, Iran and Russia combined during the same period.

Every 16 hours, a journalist is assaulted in Mexico. Article 19, a press freedom watchdog, reported that in the first half of 2017 there were 276 aggressions against journalists in Mexico- most of of them directed at journalists reporting on links between government officials and drug traffickers. The other aggressions are directed at journalists investigating human trafficking, environmental crimes and conflicts between indigenous communities and extractive industries.

Physical violence and the threat of it are not the only aggressions against the press and freedom of expression. On Monday, June 16 2017, top human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists summoned a press conference in Mexico City. For a straight hour, experts from Article 19 and Citizen Lab, a research laboratory based at the University of Toronto, explained how the mobile phones of several Mexicans and one American were hacked. The hackers targeted anti-corruption and human rights advocates, journalists, opposition leaders, and lawyers and investigators of an unresolved case of 43 missing students.

The spy tool that was used was Pegasus, a malware developed by the Israeli NSO Group. The software can control a phone’s microphone and camera, audio and video and transmits the data back to the hacker along with location data and information from social media and messaging services like iMessage, Gmail, Viber, Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype. Article 19 and Citizen Lab believe the evidence leads back to the Federal Government of Mexico which is known to have purchased the spy software from the NSO Group.

“We are the new enemies of the state,” said Juan Pardinas, director general of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), to The New York Times. Espionage attempts reached Juan in the winter of 2015, after IMCO had just published an investigation about corruption in Mexico and while his staff prepared the latest drafts of an anti-corruption bill in Mexico.

If you turn on the radio or the TV in Mexico almost every commercial break mentions the famous slogan from the federal government: Lo bueno casi no se cuenta, pero cuenta mucho (which translates to: hardly anyone talks about the good things, but they count for a lot). However, it appears that talking about “the good things” costs a lot.

In the study titled Contar lo “bueno” cuesta mucho, y lo pagamos todos y todas (Telling the “good things” costs a lot … and we all pay for it), Fundar, a Mexico City-based research center, estimates that by the end of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term, the federal government will have spent approximately 3 billion euros on government publicity and advertisement. They reckon that the president not only failed to meet the promise he made in 2012 to create a regulatory agency for government advertising but that he is now the President who has spent the most in that category.

Another study by Article 19 warns that government expenditure in ads not only benefits economically specific private media outlets, but also serves as “indirect censorship” and “retards the substantive democracy in Mexico.”

The Role of the International Community
This year will be one of the darkest for free speech in Mexico. Violence toward and co-opting of the press are so common they are now “normal.” The assault on freedoms of expression and press carried out by criminal organizations and the government are a clear and present danger to the survival of democracy and the rule of law.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation recognizes this problem and has repeatedly reported on the human rights situation in Mexico. Furthermore, the regional office , together with 8 German organizations (including the German Embassy in Mexico), invites journalists and media since 2005 to participate in the Premio de Periodismo Alemán Walter Reuter, an award for investigative journalism in Mexico.

In his international work, the foundation supports the Raif Badawi Award that recognizes the courage of journalists in challenging countries for free speech. Also, this year, in a joint project, the Robert Bosch Foundation and the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, supported the visualization of the state of freedom of expression in other countries, publishing a supplement on democracy and freedom with exiled journalists. Lastly, the Foundation also offers international seminars on journalism and political oppression, religious fundamentalism, self-censorship, and digital surveillance.

The international community can, and should pressure the Mexican government to take prompt and credible actions to reverse this trend. Most importantly it can offer aid and protection to activists, researchers and journalists by giving recognition to their work and, when necessary, granting asylum for people in high-risk situations.

The support of the international community is essential for freedom of expression to become a reality and not just a text in articles 6 and 7 of the Mexican Constitution.