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Why Mexico was the most dangerous place to be a journalist in the world in 2020

For many, 2020 was a year of danger and catastrophe. But for Mexican journalists, 2020 was yet another hard reminder that they live in the most dangerous place on earth doing the job that they do.

Last year Mexico was classified, yet again, as the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist. This, according to two organisations championing freedom of expression around the world – the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF)– was the second year in a row that such a never-to-be-desired title was awarded to Mexico.

Israel Vázquez was shot as he was about to go live on-air and died later that day.

The murder of reporters in Mexico is, sadly, not new. Since 2010, 138 journalists have been murdered. And although this figure can vary depending on the organisation counting them, or the methodology employed (e.g. whether it was confirmed that their assassination was connected to their practice), it is clear that the burden of harm in Mexico lies heavily upon those reporting the unstoppable violence in the country. 

In 2020, a year notable for the reduction in civilian harm from armed violence around the world owing to the lockdowns imposed by Covid19, five journalists were still killed in Mexico: Israel Vázquez Rangel; Jorge Miguel Armenta Ávalos; Julio Valdivia; Maria Elena Ferral Hernández; and Pablo Morrugares Parraguirre.

The continuing violence meted out on journalists in Mexico is most directly traced back to 2007, when the then Presidente Felipe Calderon declared an outright war on drugs in Mexico. Such a declaration triggered an escalation of violence that swept the country, a wave that continued under his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto. 

The supposedly left-wing president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in 2018, promised to change strategies to put an end to this harm, but it has been at least two years since Lopez Obrador took office, and in those same two years Mexico has been classified as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists to live and work. 

The question to all of this is: why? Why is Mexico so dangerous for journalists today?

Pablo Morrugares Parraguirre, the editor of news website PM Noticias, was murdered on August 2, 2020, in a restaurant in Iguala.

Some claim that the current situation is exacerbated by President López Obrador’s own stance on the press. He regularly attacks journalists in his daily press briefings (“mañaneras”), decrying them as political opponents to his government. But although one can trace some connection between such presidential contempt of reporters and the impact this has on reporters own safety, it is hard to prove absolute cause and effect. 

A series of anonymised interviews for my PhD thesis on investigative journalism in Mexico, however, does shine a light onto why Mexican journalists are so vulnerable. 

Part of my research broke such threats into three broad areas – a culture of sacrifice and risk amongst journalists, a lack of investment in the media by its owners, and the lack of Union protection for Mexico’s media. These will be addressed below in turn.

The sacrifice of heroic journalists
As in many countries around the world, native journalism traditions blend with a very dominant British/North American idea of what ‘journalism’ should look like

In the modern age, such ‘journalism’ is intrinsically linked to war correspondents. This is to say that the press coverage of conflicts has become perhaps the most influential global element of the media as a cultural product (e.g. the two World Wars, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and more recently, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria). Such a cultural product is not static, but it can be summed up in the icon the brave foreign correspondent (usually a man), risking his life for the sake of informing the public about a war taking place far from the audience’s eye. In so doing, this reporting moulds and embodies the public’s view about those events, or as Muhlmann would say, “unifies” it.

There are many points of criticism that can be levied at this kind of coverage, but for Mexico in particular, the bravery of a heroic journalist getting a major scoop whilst covering a conflict comes up a hard reality: that is the Mexican journalist has to cover a conflict that is happening in their own country. 

Such an intimate proximity to the violence unfolding has consequences. Take for instance, this journalist’s fear when it comes to reporting on public servants who, in turn, could potentially hurt her and her loved ones: “It is more costly to get the story, and start to pull all the threads in a more systematic, more formal way, because you know that there are these repercussions. Me in particular, I have stopped myself (from investigating) on some occasions … (for instance) I realised that my daughter and the daughter of the governor’s cabinet chief were in the same school, and it was just bad luck, because if I had known this before, I would have never enrolled my child there”.

Of course, this is not unique to Mexico’s War on Drugs; the same can be said to journalists around the globe covering wars in their own territories. However, the exact nature of the Mexican conflict puts this problem into sharper contrast. So, whilst Reporters Without Borders (RSF) tries to differentiate between the threats against journalists in countries at peace, and those at war, such a differentiation evades Mexico. Mexico is neither at peace, nor at war. 

Rather, Mexico is in a gyre of violence that began in 2007 and has continued ever since, claiming over 250,000 victims in just two decades. Despite such a body count, war has not been formally declared and this limbo – in between war and peace – creates a false sensation of normality. It is one where journalists still cover war-like issues in their own country, risking their lives to report close to their homes, but without having the legal or emergency provisions that a state of war might grant reporters under similar circumstances.

To what degree the performative nature of such conflict reporting – presented by Western media as the epitome of great journalism – influences Mexican reporter in taking unnecessary risk is unclear. But the lack of protection offered them by the State and the media corporations they work for painfully is, as the next section explains.

Media owners save their other businesses, not journalism
The second element that explains why Mexico is still one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist is the media model or ecosystem. News media in Mexico is largely run according to a model which is largely dependent from local and federal governments, either through advertising contracts or through government-ordained licenses and permits. 

The result of this is that much of Mexico’s media is owned by large conglomerates with interests that extend far beyond fair or balanced reporting. Many Mexican tycoons have a diversified portfolio of investments across many sectors of the economy, from telecommunications (e.g. the Vargas family own MVS and Dish), to retail and finance (e.g. Ricardo Salinas Pliego, owns TV Azteca but also Banco Azteca, among others). In such an arrangement, media owners are also conscious of protecting not necessarily journalists, but more their wider investments.

This, at least, is the concern of my interviewees regarding media owners and the implications this has for the most dangerous, most expensive journalism — investigations. As one said: “Media owners are against investigative journalism, they are not helpful… Here (in Mexico) they play against Investigative Journalism… If you have the limitations of journalists at their workplace and the friendly-fire from the owners, it becomes very difficult to do investigative journalism, even more so in a context of violence, but in any other context.”

Resistances to Unions
Third, the journalism model widely adopted in Mexico is one supposedly more attuned to democracy. And with it comes the ideology that encourages competition, differentiation between outlets, and the assumption that free enterprise equates to freedom of expression. 

In the early 1990s, new media outlets like Reforma and El Financiero gained considerable traction in Mexico, icons of the democrat liberalisation of the press. But such a revolution was not simply for the better. With it came a substantial shift towards corporate media that, in turn, had a significant impact on journalist Unions. 

Unions in Mexico have long suffered a poor reputation. Journalists themselves acknowledge and repeat stories of useless journalist associations, headed by appalling leaderships, subservient to higher political and economic powers. 

However, journalists also repeatedly told me that, whenever they sought to organise themselves into a group, to provide some protection from the violence that permanently threatens them, media owners in turn threatened them with blacklisting or being fired “for trying to create a union”. 

The majority of journalists I interviewed at Periodistas de a Pie, a network of journalists that promotes professional, ethical, independent and critical journalism, said how they had to leave news agencies where self-organisation was actively prohibited.

As one told me: “We were afraid of losing our jobs and being blacklisted, so no one else in the media would hire us… if you tried to organise something no one would hire you… that is a sort of straitjacket preventing journalists’ organisation, preventing them from speaking out their opinion, from thinking. As a political actor, as a social actor, and someone with rights you were completely nullified, you were merely a fucking employee.”

The resistance to Unionisation was so acute, that even Periodistas de a Pie has decided not to engage in any kind of activities that might resemble a Union. 

‘In this new political landscape, the fight for power will bring carnage … Without a doubt, there will be more political crimes in this region,’ wrote María Elena Ferral on 12 March. Eighteen days later, the 49-year-old Mexican journalist was shot dead.

Efforts towards Union protection have been repeatedly frustrated. After the assassination of two prominent journalists in Mexico in 2017 – Javier Valdez and Miroslava Breach – Mexican activists tried to create the Agenda de Periodistas, perhaps the closest attempt to organise journalists at the national level. Its main aim was to put an end to the threats they suffer. Weeks and weeks of discussion, however, proved unfruitful, a key sticking point being whether the organisation could act as a Union or not. In the end, Agenda de Periodistas was dissolved and, apart from local attempts here and there, the impetus towards self organisation has vanished.

Such a bedrock of immobility – the challenges posed to reporters covering the grey zone between war and peace, the limitations to investigative reporting presented by media owner’s other investments, and the lack of a single, Unionised voice to address concerns – means that it would require strident political will to change the status quo. And such political will is not forthcoming. 

The current Mexican President has done nothing to address the harm. The media model is still the same. The President had the chance to change the regulation on official advertising – abolishing the advertising scheme that decides who can receive State funds – but he did not do so. 

Yes, he signed an agreement with UNESCO to create a fund for investigative journalism and help the setting of a journalist’s union. But so far none of those promises have been delivered.

The question as to why Mexico is still the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist is not a mystery. What can be done about it, beyond rhetoric and wishful thinking, though is a different matter.

To conclude, some might claim that President Lopez Obrador’s verbal attacks on newspapers and journalists explains in large part the violence faced by journalists in Mexico. This argument, though, fails to link convincingly López Obrador’s public rebukes against political columnists with the deadly attacks suffered by shoe-leather journalists in the provinces. Neither does it address the long-term dynamics of the Mexican political and media system that has, for decades, failed to protect reporters and improve their conditions at work.

Rather, López Obrador’s lip-service and inaction in changing those long-standing systems – related to protection of reporters, media ownership and journalism Union – far more explains why Mexican journalists’ lives still are so at risk. The impact on freedom of expression and accountability such a political and economic failure brings with it is yet another victim in Mexico’s long day’s journey into the night.