Violence has undeniably infringed on press freedom in Mexico. Reporters Without Borders has classified it as one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Article 19 have also documented a significant increase in attacks against journalists since 2004. Why this is the case is less clear.
The first narratives that tried to make this phenomenon intelligible pointed to organized crime and the "war on drugs," however, these narratives left out key elements. Although no single explanation encompasses the different social dynamics in each region of the country and the type of actors involved, at least four important points can be highlighted about violence against journalists:
First, attacks on journalists are deliberate and intentional. Due to their privileged position in the public arena and their work in generating and disseminating socially and politically relevant information, journalists become uncomfortable for powerful legal and/or illegal groups. In fact, almost half of all attacks against journalists come from public officials. However, there are many attacks where authorities, economically powerful local groups and/or criminal groups operate in collusion.
Second, many journalists in Mexico have precarious working conditions and also they are pressured by the media - for which they collaborate - to engage in practices where journalists are susceptible to harassment or danger their professional and physical integrity (Merchant 2019).
Third, a systemic pattern of official inaction not only fails to reduce risk, but in some cases, leads to an increased danger. In one hand, the failure to investigate and punish crimes against journalists creates an environment conducive to the continuation of aggressions (Article 19; Rodríguez and Quintanar 2016). In the other, the protection of the Federal Mechanism – a governmental institution created to protect human right defenders and journalists - does not diminish the risk faced by journalists enrolled in it. Instead, this contradictory and deficient protection puts them in highly vulnerable situations. For example, in the cases where the Mechanism has provided safehouses to journalists, they typically experience the loss of their professional networks as they are forced to relocate indefinitely to a shelter located far from the region where they lived and worked. Many of the refugee journalists I interviewed had to give up journalism temporarily or permanently (Escobedo 2018).
Fourth, some Mexican NGOs that defend freedom of expression focus their attention on those that personify the character of a “good journalist”, that is reporters whose work is both untainted by corruption and opposed to powerful groups. Although the work of NGOs is well-intentioned, this preference results in the invisibility of local power relations that affect journalists, and leads to a greater lack of protection for journalists who lack the tools or material circumstances necessary for a more professionalized journalism (Escobedo 2018).
Beyond offering a single-cause explanation of violence against journalists, it is necessary to observe in greater detail and depth the many dimensions of the problem. Moreover, it is important to problematize the dominant discourses and to examine the sometimes paradoxical role of the many actors involved.
Virginia M. Escobedo Aguirre. USMEX Fellow.