Security & Strategic Review - February 2022

MEXICO: Alarms raised over dangers facing journalists

In the first three weeks of 2022, three journalists were killed in Mexico. According to Emmanuel Colombié, the Latin American bureau director for international NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the killings point to “another bloody year for press freedom” in the country. The murders have sparked international condemnation, with rights groups, press advocacy groups and institutions like the European Union (EU) calling on the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) government led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to reinforce the mechanisms that protect journalists.

The spate of journalist killings began with José Luis Gamboa, the founder and director of digital news platform Inforegio, who was fatally stabbed on 10 January in Veracruz city (Veracruz state). The following week, photojournalist Margarito Martínez Esquivel was shot dead in Tijuana (Baja California state). Just days later, on 23 January, journalist Lourdes Maldonado López was also killed in Tijuana. The week before, Maldonado had won a long-running legal dispute for unfair dismissal with her former employer Primer Sistema de Noticias (PSN), which is owned by Jaime Bonilla (Morena), former governor of Baja California (2019-2021). Maldonado, who was reportedly enrolled in a federal protection mechanism for journalists, had appealed to López Obrador for support in 2019, saying that she feared for her life.

The killings indicate that the long-running risks posed to journalists in Mexico will not be alleviated any time soon. In its 2021 round-up published on 14 December, RSF said Mexico had been the most dangerous country for journalists for the past five years, matched only by Afghanistan. According to RSF figures, as of 1 December, seven journalists had been killed in Mexico in 2021, making it the country with the highest number of journalist deaths for the third consecutive year.

Other organisations put the number even higher. US-based press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded nine journalist deaths in Mexico last year, saying it was “the Western hemisphere’s deadliest country for the press”. The Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) reported ten deaths, explaining that its count is often higher than that of other organisations as it considers all media workers killed, whether the killings were work related or not.

In its year-end report, the RSF highlighted the particular danger faced by journalists reporting on drug trafficking and political corruption in Mexico. Indeed, journalists in Mexico operate in an environment of open hostility and intimidation, levelled at them from drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) and the government alike. In August, the DTO Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) circulated a video in which a masked man threatened to kill Milenio Televisión news anchor Azucena Uresti, citing unfair news coverage.

The threats prompted the Mexican branch of United Kingdom-based press advocacy group, Article 19, to call on the Mexican government to offer protection to journalists and media outlets. However, the López Obrador government has been no friend to the media. López Obrador has frequently criticised journalists during his morning press conferences. Prominent journalists in the country have also accused the government of spying on them, claims which López Obrador has refuted.

  • Spying allegations

On 23 June 2021, Javier Tejado Dondé, a columnist for the national daily El Universal, alleged that the deputy minister of public security, Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, had ordered that he and other columnists should be spied on because they had written columns criticising the creation of a nationwide registry of mobile phone users, which the journalists said would be a hacker’s dream. Other journalists then weighed in, making accusations against the head of the intelligence agency (CNI), Audomaro Martínez, and the defence minister, Luis Cresencio Sandoval. The journalists also accused López Obrador of “pressuring, frightening, and intimidating” journalists in the same way that previous administrations had. López Obrador rejected all allegations outright.

However, the Mexican government has recently made moves to improve security conditions for journalists. On 17 January, Mexico’s interior ministry (Segob) launched proceedings to strengthen protection for journalists, including overhauling the current protection mechanism, which was introduced in 2012, drafting a proposed legislative initiative for protecting journalists and defining the responsibilities of different levels of government and public institutions in investigating and prosecuting crimes against journalists. The representative of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Mexico, Guillermo Fernández-Maldonado Castro, commended these efforts. However, he stressed that preventative actions were most important as the main objective was to create an environment where journalists “can inform society freely”, without the need for reactive protection measures.

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