Impunity is the death of Mexico's journalists

Mexican freelance journalist Elia Baltazar talks to INSI's Anna Bevan about the situation for journalists in her home country and how getting caught up in the fallout of an underground war is forcing more journalists to demand change.

1.   So far 2017 has been a particularly bloody year for journalists in Mexico. Why have so many colleagues been killed?   

What we’re seeing today is the culmination of what’s been happening over the past 10 years since ex-president Felipe Calderon’s “War on Drugs” began. That changed everything; it was like it released all these demons. There hasn’t been an effective policy against the violence and the government has been inefficient in the face of organised crime, so instead of reducing violence it’s increased it.

When there’s a climate of violence in a society it’s reflected in all parts of public life. It’s reflected in the press, especially in regions where drug trafficking is rampant. We’re not just talking about drug trafficking. We’re talking about people trafficking, kidnapping and murders. Crime is related to corruption and impunity. In doing their job members of the press often become victims of the very crimes they are reporting on.  

2.   What’s it like being a journalist in Mexico?

It’s very difficult. A lot of my friends have left the profession as they can’t live with the low pay and there’s no professional encouragement.

Journalism in Mexico is doing important things and has become fundamental at combatting corruption. It has grown a lot, become stronger in certain areas, especially online, but it’s been a lot of effort for little gain and I see young people disenchanted and older people leaving the profession.

Mexico is a country that everyone considers to be modern and democratic. It’s promoted itself well on the outside to international audiences but on the inside there’s something serious happening: there’s an underground war.

It was recently proven that the government is spying on journalists and activists via a software that it bought. The president denied it but there’s evidence this happened. If your government is spying on your laptop and phone, then you can’t build a relationship of trust with them and go to them and report an attack against you. In Mexico, you don’t know who you’re up against: if they’re police or if they’re involved in organised crime.

The press is part of the institutional fabric of this country and [politicians] don’t understand that. They isolate violence against journalists as an issue for journalists, but it’s a concern for everyone. A weak press results in a weak democracy but the politicians don’t want to confront this.

3.   Have there been any changes in how the Mexican press responds to attacks on their colleagues?

In May, after our colleague Javier Valdez was killed in Sinaloa, the pressure on the government was unsustainable. Over the last few years, we as journalists have had setbacks but we’ve learnt to organise ourselves. We’re no longer afraid of protesting, of making demands and confronting the government. Before in Mexico you didn’t see public protests in front of the president after a journalist was attacked, but after the death of Valdez there have been a number of protest actions that have garnered a lot of attention: journalists held up signs saying: “Ni Uno Mas!” (Not One More) and “No Mas Sangre” (No More Blood). Photographers that cover presidential activities also spoke out  at public ceremonies and demanded that the deaths of journalists be investigated. This is unprecedented for us.

4.   How did the government react?

President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed to strengthen the protection of journalists and said his government respects freedom of expression. It was really just an announcement for the international community. We don’t need flamboyant declarations or flamboyant statements. Justice isn’t built with good intentions and declarations; it’s built by combatting impunity, which is the obligation of Mexican authorities. But there’s no combatting impunity head-on for crimes against journalists - they aren’t investigated and no-one is held responsible.

5.   Are crimes against journalists ever investigated?

I think there are three people who have been sentenced for crimes against journalists. It’s an embarrassment. When there’s impunity, the message is: you can attack a journalist, kill a journalist and nothing will happen.

The authorities that investigated the death of Ruben Espinosa said it was nothing to do with his journalism work. But that hasn’t been proven. The Human Rights Commission in Mexico City recently said it was evident the case hadn’t been handled properly: there were a series of irregularities such as people being allowed into the crime scene, which discredited the investigation. The worst thing is that we can’t say why they killed him because we don’t know. If there would have been a proper investigation then there would have been patterns and we’d have a victim’s profile, we could have information that could help us foresee and prevent future deaths.

6.   How does it make you feel being a journalist reading about your colleagues being killed?

There’s a huge feeling of frustration, of powerlessness; however, we haven’t stopped fighting. Javier was a very respected and experienced journalist covering drug trafficking in Sinaloa. The fact that they managed to kill him was really hard for all of us to swallow because it meant that they can get anyone of us and what’s more: with complete impunity. They killed him in the morning, in the plain light of day. In front of his office, they shot him in the head. The same happened with Miroslava Breach who was killed in March in Chihuahua. She was parked outside her house, waiting to take her son to school, when a man came up to her and shot her in the head, in broad daylight.

Acting with this level of impunity, acting in the light of day tells you something: it doesn’t need to be at night, you don’t need to follow them, you can just wait outside a journalist’s home and kill them - nothing will happen to you.

7.   If the country continues in this trajectory, what’s the future for the press?

After the death of Javier, a number of journalists got together and came up with proposals to confront not just the violence against journalists but also the poor working conditions, such as low wages and lack of job security, which make us more vulnerable. We need to strengthen journalism organisations, create mechanisms to influence the security situation and demand investigations.

We need to take this up not just with the government, but also with the places we work for and with the journalists themselves. The situation is so severe that we all have to get involved and act.

8.   Are there fewer journalists in Mexico wanting to come into the profession now due to the violence?

The violence has certainly discouraged young journalists from entering the profession, but more than the violence it’s the unfavourable working conditions. There are a number of factors that make the press more vulnerable in the face of violence. The Mexican media is very close to the government and is almost entirely dependent on government publicity, which creates a difficult relationship between press and power.

Photo by AFP