A key indicator for measuring democratic progress in any country is the level of protection given to freedom of expression. When the free debate of ideas and opinions is obstructed, the effective development of the democratic process is limited. This process depends on diverse voices and points of view being heard.
But true freedom of expression is not only saying what one thinks, or publishing what one wants to. Its full exercise requires both giving and receiving of information, without suffering economic, physical or legal reprisals for doing so.
In Mexico, the context for journalistic practice is high-risk. In its last annual report, the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression included several areas of concern for Mexico, including assaults, detentions and threats against journalists; jurisprudence that does not protect the publication of information with offensive content; the existence of legislation that penalizes defamation in various states; and the subpoenaing of journalists to get them to reveal their sources, among other issues.
Given this scenario, it’s not surprising that the Hay Festival, a famous annual literary and arts event, announced that it would cancel this year’s gathering, scheduled for October in the state of Veracruz. The decision was prompted by an outcry from hundreds of writers and intellectuals worldwide over the failure of the Veracruz government to protect local journalists. The organizers will hold the popular event online.
Veracruz is the Mexican state with the highest combined number of killings and disappearances of journalists in Mexico. In the last four years, according to official sources, ten journalists were killed and three were reported disappeared.
But it’s not just Veracruz. Violence against the media is alarmingly high throughout Mexico. Between January 2000 and March 2015, 103 journalists were murdered and 25 disappeared. Article 19, an international non-governmental organization that monitors press freedom, documented 326 attacks against journalists and the media in Mexico in 2014 alone, including physical attacks, threats, intimidation, and arbitrary detentions.
One recent example is Moisés Sánchez, director of the Veracruz weekly newspaper La Unión. Sánchez reported about local government corruption and violent crime. On January 2, he was abducted by armed men, who also took his computer, camera, and mobile phone. According to civil society groups, just a few days before his abduction, Sánchez had received threats from the mayor of the municipality where he lives. On January 24, Sánchez’s body was found decapitated on the outskirts of his hometown.
Authorities in Veracruz attempted to rule out a connection between the crimes and Sánchez’s work as a reporter. According to media accounts, a day after Sánchez was abducted, the governor of Veracruz insisted that he was not a reporter but only a “taxi driver” and “neighborhood activist.” A former municipal police officer arrested in connection with Sánchez’s murder confessed to carrying it out with five accomplices on orders from the mayor. So far, no one has been convicted for this crime.
An important reason why these attacks continue is that impunity for crimes against journalists remains the norm. Despite the creation in 2010 of a federal special prosecutor’s office to investigate attacks against journalists, investigations are rarely conducted in a timely, thorough, or transparent manner.
The National Human Rights Commission reported in 2014 that 89 percent of crimes against journalists in Mexico go unpunished. The special prosecutor’s office reported that between July 2010 and March 2015 it opened 676 investigations into alleged crimes and brought charges in 19 cases, but it did not provide official statistics on the number of convictions obtained.
Mexico is a country where those who dedicate themselves to journalism are often driven to self-censorship as a consequence of attacks, harassment, and death threats by both government officials and criminal groups. Given the enormous importance that the full respect of freedom of expression holds for democratic credibility, World Press Freedom Day is not a day for speeches or promises, but rather an opportunity for the government of Mexico to design and adopt a plan of action with effective measures to end impunity for attacks on journalists.