Jose Antonio Brambila introduces his research on the state of freedom of the media in Mexico, highlighting violence against journalists perpetrated at the local level. This post is the first in a series on this topic.
On August 30, 2014, Mayan Journalist Pedro Canché, a critic of Quintana Roo’s Governor Roberto Borge, was arrested on the charge of sabotage after covering the public demonstrations against the government in the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto. On May 29, 2015, after nine months of illegal detention, a local court ordered his release.
The body of Mexican Journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo was discovered on January 24, 2015. He was the owner and editor of the weekly magazine La Unión, in which he denounced the insecurity of municipal authorities. According to an official statement, Cerezo was killed on the order of the mayor of Medellín de Bravo in the state of Veracruz.
Amidst claims that they had “morally damaged” the reputation of public officials, Fabián Gómez, chief-editor of digital newspaper Contraparte, and Adrián Ruiz, a journalist at El Heraldo de Puebla, were sued by Puebla Governor Rafael Moreno Valle on October 23, 2012. One month later, following social pressure, local authorities stopped the trial.
These three events highlight one of the barriers to media openness in contemporary Mexico: autocratic attacks on local journalists and regional media from local political groups and authoritarian incumbents. Such attacks occur because independent journalism is perceived as a threat to governments’ unrestricted power.
According to the Attorney General’s Office in Mexico, from January 2000 to May 2015, one-hundred and three journalists have been killed and twenty-five have disappeared (PGR, 2015). The vast majority of those victims, according to information from the Committee to Protect Journalists, follow a pattern: The journalists killed are men who cover crime, corruption, or political issues and work for local media outlets. For example, as the chief editor of La Union, Moisés Sánchez Cerezo used to denounce the lack of services and governmental inefficacy in his community.
Although journalists are attacked, threatened, and killed by organized crime members, corrupt officials, or de facto local groups, freedom of expression advocacy organization Article 19 Mexico declared that the state was involved in nearly half of all aggressions against journalists and media organizations in 2012. The London based organization also found that in eighty-five percent of cases in which a journalist or media outlet was attacked by an authority, the perpetrator was a local (municipal or state) body of authority, not a federal one. As in the cases of Pedro Canché, Fabián Gómez, and Adrián Ruiz, state aggressions – including the instrumentalization of defamation laws – came from municipal or state police forces, local politicians, and local bureaucracies.
Although anti-press violence exists across the country (Mexico ranked 153 among 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index 2015), government information confirms that this situation is more severe within some Mexican states. In such states, media and journalists are more susceptible to political and financial pressures, especially because local media workers (photo-journalists, journalists and editors) work in a continuum of financial precariousness and job insecurity. According to an independent report conducted by a group of national and international NGOs and independent journalists, 250 USD is the monthly salary of a local reporter in the state of Veracruz. In general, local journalists have neither social security nor health insurance, and they are not allowed to belong to trade unions or to participate in demonstrations to fight for their labor rights.
In a country where crimes are rarely punished, anti-press violence also results from the state’s inability to conduct effective investigations against criminals. Research from the Committee to Protect Journalists reveals that since 1992, in eighty-nine per cent of journalist assassinations in Mexico the killers have not been punished. In the eastern state of Veracruz (one of the most dangerous sub-national regions for journalists in the world), as many as ten journalists have been killed since 2010, and in all of those cases, including Sánchez Cerezo’s assassination, the killers have not been punished.
Even though federal authorities have had the jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against freedom of expression since April 2013, the lack of cooperation between federal and local authorities and the fierce defence of jurisdiction by the latter, explain why local governments still retain control over the vast majority those investigations. The Sánchez Cerezo investigation, for example, has not attracted the attention of the Special Public Prosecutor on Crimes Against Freedom of Expression despite being open for six months.
The Mexican case suggests that after two decades of democratization, political liberties and human rights, including the freedom of the press and right to information, are under threat. This is especially true at the subnational level where local journalists and media outlets suffer from systematic censorship. In spite of these circumstances, systematic studies of the state of freedom of the press at subnational level are rare among communication scholars or within national and international organizations. In an attempt to understand and explain this situation, in the following months I will develop a comparative study on the state of the freedom of the press at subnational level in Mexico, supported by a research grant of the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at Annenberg School for Communication at Penn.
Among the questions that I try to answer in the study are: How has freedom of the press materialized (territorialized) within Mexican states since so called transition to democracy in 2000? How do subnational social, political and economic conditions affect and shape the exercising of freedom of the press in Mexican states? What strategies of media-control do local political groups apply to contain local press in contemporary Mexico?
This research will utilize a mixed method strategy that includes a freedom of the press statistical index and in-depth interviews to journalists, authorities, and members of freedom of the press advocacy organizations. A key component of this research is a survey of experts on freedom of the press at the subnational level in select Mexican provinces. Upcoming posts will outline the research design and preliminary findings of this investigation, which aims to further illuminate the dangerous situation that local media outlets and local journalists – such as Pedro Canché, Fabián Gómez and Adrián Ruiz – face on daily basis.
José Antonio Brambila is a PhD reseracher at the University of Leeds. He previously studied at the University of Sheffield as a PhD student in the Department of Journalism. He holds a BA in Communication from the Panamerican University (2008) and a Master in Political Science from El Colegio de México (2011). He has also presented over twenty conference papers, guest lectures, and talks in Mexico, Europe, and Japan. Follow José Antonio on Twitter at @jabrambila.