Journalism as a profession is rarely considered among the most dangerous. In democratic nations that uphold some freedom of speech, worry over the safety of those doing the talking is often superfluous. But in Mexico, being a journalist may mean a death sentence. The Committee to Protect Journalists listed Mexico as the most dangerous country for journalists, ahead of countries like Syria and Afghanistan.
At least 104 journalists have been murdered in Mexican territory since 2000, according to The New York Times, while 25 others have disappeared or been presumed dead. Last year, 11 Mexican journalists were killed, the country’s highest tally this century. If the current trend continues, 2017 will produce the highest journalism-related death rate in Mexico’s history.
Salvador Adame, director of the local television station 6TV, became the seventh and most recent journalist to be murdered in Mexico this year. According to The Guardian, Adame was abducted on May 18 in the city of Nueva Italia, about 250 miles west of Mexico City. His burnt remains were confirmed through DNA testing on June 14.
Javier Valdez, who was murdered in May while reporting on drug trafficking, knew the dangers of being a journalist in Mexico all too well. He likened the profession to “being put on a blacklist”, The Atlantic reports.
“Even though you may have bulletproofing and bodyguards, [the gangs] will decide what day they are going to kill you,” said Valdez at a book launch. Less than a year after making that statement, Valdez’s car was gunned down on a busy street by unidentified attackers, says The Atlantic.
The reasons for the killings are often varied, says the The New York Times. Some killings are carried out by cartels who are annoyed with excessive coverage or by corrupt politicians attempting to silence critics. This year especially, the majority of journalists killed have ties to covering the cartels.
As Valdez said, the cartels are dangerous territory for any journalist to report. Time reports that cartels often bribe and threaten journalists to not write stories, or to write a version that the cartel wants told. If threats and bribes do not work, the cartels resort to murder and kidnapping.
Edith L., a Mexican-American student, told The Diplomatic Envoy just how dangerous and powerful the cartels are. “Right now it’s the drug lords that are in charge of Mexico, and they’re in all levels of the country. Whenever a journalist speaks out against the drug lords or the corruption in the government—which is being paid by the drug lords—they are murdered.”
Edith went on to say, “If you’re a problem in Mexico, the drug lords get rid of you, and it’s stifling the country. It’s frustrating, demoralizing, and terrifying to see my homeland being destroyed like this from the inside out.”
According to The Guardian, most murders of journalists go unsolved and unpunished due to state and local governments making advertising conditional on positive press coverage. As a result, they often demonstrate a lack of interest in investigating crimes committed against media workers.
On top of continued ambivalence towards crimes directed at journalists, the BBC reports that the Mexican government may be spying on journalists, lawyers, and activists fighting gang-related corruption.
The BBC reports that several prominent journalists and activists accused the government of spying on them by hacking their phones, using a spyware meant to be used against criminals and terrorists. According to The New York Times, the software, Pegasus, can infiltrate smartphones and monitor calls, texts, and other forms of communication. It can also activate a phone’s camera or microphone.
The New York Times reports that acquiring the judicial approval to hack these phones would be too difficult to obtain. Instead, it is most likely a result of illegal surveillance, a standard practice. This activity, combined with the constant life threats that Mexican journalists are under, can make it demoralizing to work in the country.
“This is why someone like Jorge Ramos is a hot shot reporter here in the U.S.,” said Edith L., “but he doesn’t stay in Mexico. He also doesn’t really talk about the drug lords, and doesn’t do reports on them. He’ll talk about the corruption of Mexican politicians, but in the safety of the U.S., which is also frustrating that people like him have to find protection in a country like the U.S. rather than be able to live and thrive in Mexico.”
Between a lack of activism from outside nations, and their own government not solving the many cases before them, Mexicans are feeling frustrated and afraid.
“We have lived in this hell for some time now,” Octavio Bravo told The New York Times. A fellow journalist, Bravo operated in Veracruz last year, one of the most dangerous places to be a reporter in the world. “You can’t imagine the frustration, the impotence we are feeling.”
Edith L. suggested legalizing or decriminalizing drugs as a solution to this issue. “If we legalized drugs, the drug lords’ economy would collapse and they would be unnecessary. Without them, the violence would end. I’m sure there would still be government corruption, but without the violence the Mexican people can do something about it.”
However, such an act may do more harm than good. Dr. Benjamin Goldfrank, Associate Professor and Department Chair of the School of Diplomacy, believes that decriminalization or legalization alone “would not be an effective way to take power away from the cartels.” He proposes that a more beneficial solution may be to reduce prison overcrowding and harm to drug addicts and recreational drug users, most of whom “need treatment not jail.”
He also made a point that “the Mexican government’s strategy of going after the heads of drug cartels, like El Chapo, has not worked either. Mexico’s murder rate this year is higher than in recent years and the cartels continue to battle one another for control of territory and drug routes… what has been tried in the past fifteen years or longer has not worked to reduce violence, to reduce drug consumption, or to reduce the power of the cartels.”
The main problem boils down to a lack of trust in the government, and its complacency in allowing the cartels to continue their violence against any outspoken
individuals. Without the government’s help in keeping reporters safe from violence, journalists are not truly free.