This is reality—attack on freedom of the press in Mexico in 2011

Darío Ramírez, from ARTICLE 19, a freedom of expression organization, gives us up-to-date background information about the threats to journalists in Mexico—what does violence look like in the statistics that are a matter of life and death?

March 9 2013 Text: Darío Ramírez Translation from Spanish: Stuart Shield Infographics: Johan Rutherhagen

Any analysis undertaken in recent years of violations of the freedom of expression of those who practice journalism must take account of a fundamental fact: there is a sub-class of cases related directly to the policy of self-censorship which journalists and media have adopted as a means of protection. Public denunciations have declined and will continue to do so until the State provides guarantees that it will investigate and punish those responsible.

Even allowing for this, we were able to register and document 172 attacks on freedom of expression in 2011, that is to say 17 cases more than those reported in the 2010 ARTICLE 19/Censos[1] report. The figure for murdered and disappeared journalists is similar to that of the previous year, while the number of attacks on media installations was slightly lower.

An optimistic reading is that we have entered a phase of relative stability, with the scale of violence, while not growing exponentially, continuing at a fairly constant level. On the other hand, it may be the case that we are facing a problem which has already become too large, and that the few cases known and documented are sufficient for us to continue recording increases from one year to the next.

 

Infographic: Attack on freedom of the press in Mexico in 2011.

 

Type of assault

No. of assaults

Legal action

8

Threat

20

Assassination

11

Cyber attack

4

Disappearance

2

Forcible displacement

17

Illegal detention

7

Physical/material

73

Intimidation/pressure

24

Illegal deprivation of freedom

6

Total

172

Source: ARTICLE 19

The most common form of assault in 2011 was physical or material violence, i.e. injuries or damage of varying severity inflicted on people engaged in journalism, or damage to their equipment including attacks on media installations.

Of the 73 assaults of this type, which accounted for 42.44 per cent of the total for the year, 61 were directed at journalists, another at an employee of the circulation department of a newspaper, and 10 at media offices and installations. Eight attacks in the latter assault category were launched using explosives or high-powered firearms.

The next most frequent form of violence, in terms of relevance and impact, were threats and acts of intimidation and pressure directed against media companies and their journalists. We refer here to a wide range of actions, including direct warnings issued after the publication of journalistic material, arbitrary interference aimed at preventing reporters from seeking or disseminating information, and attempts to prevent the distribution of a publication.

It is fair to say that the types of assaults and the identity of those responsible come as no surprise. By professional profile, the most frequent targets were reporters, photographers and cameramen, due to the risks they run by exposing their identities and being the first to interface with events and sources of information.

As in previous years, public officials in all three tiers of government were responsible for the largest number of assaults on freedom of expression (41.86 per cent of the total). Of this group, i.e. cases attributable to government actors, the security forces (the army and navy, and the municipal, state and federal police) were directly identified as responsible for six of every ten abuses perpetrated against media representatives.

By contrast, assaults perpetrated by individuals presumably linked to organised crime syndicates barely accounted for 13.37 per cent, although responsibility for nine murders and 13 direct attacks and other acts of intimidation against the media in different cities can be directly attributed to their members.

There is, however, a peculiarity, which has become increasingly evident in the last year. A large number of events were usually recorded annually in which the perpetrators acted in complete anonymity, and which were entered under the broad heading “Unknown”.

However, a number of cases documented in the recent past by ARTICLE 19 required the introduction of an important qualification, namely the impossibility of attributing responsibility to a specific individual. We are not just referring here to actions committed by organised criminal groups in collusion with the authorities, but also to attacks instigated by politicians and public officials choreographed to shift responsibility onto the criminals. Our 2011 report accordingly distinguishes between cases where the identity of the responsible person is “unknown” and those in which his or her identity is regarded as “undetermined”.

 

Assault victim

No. of assaults

Assailant

No. of assaults

Reporters (both sexes)

81

Organised crime

23

Cameramen/photographers

41

Partisan forces

4

Journalistic collaborators

6

Public officials

72

Media executives

5

Undetermined

35

Editors

4

Private individuals

17

Workers

4

Unknown

8

Radio journalists

4

Other

13

Media

27

Total

172

Total

172

Source: ARTICLE 19

 

 

Journalists assassinated in 2011 for reasons possibly connected with their work

Name

Date

Medium

State

 

 

Luis Emanuel Ruiz Carrillo

25 March

La Prensa

Nuevo León

 

 

Noel Lopez Olguín

31 May

Horizonte, Noticias de Acayucan

Veracruz

 

 

Pablo Aurelio Ruelas

13 June

El Regional de Sonora

Sonora

 

 

Miguel Αngel López Velasco

20 June

Notiver

Veracruz

 

 

Misael López Solana

20 June

Notiver

Veracruz

 

 

Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz

27 July

Notiver

Veracruz

 

 

Humberto Millán Salazar

25 August

A discusión

Sinaloa

 

 

Marcela Yarce

1 September

Contralínea

Distrito Federal

 

 

Elizabeth Macías Castro

25 September

Primera Hora

Tamaulipas

 

 

Media workers assassinated in 2011

 

Maribel Hernández

31 January

El Diario

Chihuahua

 

Rodolfo Ochoa Moreno

9 February

Multimedios Laguna

Coahuila

 

Source: ARTICLE 19

 

                   

 

Women: differentiated violence
One aspect of the figures compiled by ARTICLE 19 which cannot be ignored are the 34 assaults carried out last year on women media communicators and workers, four of whom were murdered. Although no apparent pattern of violence based on gender identity was observed in most instances, in at least three of those examined, violence and other differentiated means of pressure and intimidation were evident; in the case of women, these were specifically aimed at harming or otherwise disrupting their family and/or personal life.

One case is particularly disturbing: the authorities of the State of Hidalgo were identified as having taken part in a long campaign of harassment against a local woman reporter. Actions included stealing photographs from her daughter and circulating a degrading nude video and photographs of her in an effort to discredit her professionally.

Another incident took place in Durango. Unknown assailants broke into the home of a local journalist and took some of her belongings. The objects stolen were by no means her most valuable possessions, although they did include her personal computer and some of her undergarments – an act with a strong undertone of sexual violence.

 

By gender

Cases

Percentage of the total

Men

110

63.95

Women

34

19.76

Media (not applicable)

28

16.27

Source: ARTICLE 19

The government of Veracruz: absent, complicit and antagonistic
In the second half of 2011, the State of Veracruz experienced an unprecedented escalation of violence, similar to that which had devastated Tamaulipas. In the space of a few weeks, four journalists were assassinated, 13 fled the state due to threats, and another disappeared without trace. To date his whereabouts remain unknown. Shortly before the end of the year, the editorial offices of a newspaper in the municipality of Córdoba were attacked by a group of armed men who made their way into the premises and set fire to the areas of the building containing the design, advertising and editorial departments.

Through various channels, the residents of Veracruz and Boca del Rio learned of alleged warnings issued by the criminal group Los Zetas, who threatened to assassinate a student for the every death of one of its members at the hands of the army or navy.

Fear became widespread as the violence grew. On the morning of Thursday, 25 August, a vehicle caught fire close to a school centre due to a fault in the electrical system. Some people on Twitter posted various versions of the ‘assault’ and claimed that the public schools were under attack. Panicked parents rushed to collect their children, and school heads suspended classes for the day.

The response of the Government of Veracruz was neither timely nor proportional to the damage, which, it was later admitted, had prompted the spread of false information. The Twitter accounts linked to the Secretariat of Public Security of Veracruz did not respond to these rumours with useful information that might have helped dispel the rumours. The authorities did not make a coherent effort to disseminate the information; they simply echoed the governor's words.

The governor, Javier Duarte, and his then state attorney-general, Reynaldo Escobar Pérez, launched a crusade aimed at punishing the alleged authors of the rumours and subsequent general state of alarm, because “in Veracruz” they said “we don't play games with the peace and tranquillity of the population.”

On the basis of an ambiguous article in the Penal Code and with no regard for international standards in this sphere, the Office of the State Attorney-General arrested two citizens and charged them with “acts equated with terrorism” and “sabotage”[2], punishable by up to 30 years in prison, only to withdraw the charges 27 days later in the wake of a storm of criticism. The state administration was accused of deliberately penalising and intimidating citizens who try to disseminate information not mediated by the state government, and of controlling local media through official information channels. In other words, instead of punishing criminal acts which threatened to disturb the social order, they were intent on suppressing expressions critical of the violence prevailing in the state.

With no legitimate legal recourse to hand, the governor of Veracruz presented the State Congress with an initiative involving a reform of the State Penal Code. He proposed the introduction of a new crime: “disturbing the public order”. This would enable prosecutors to bring charges against anyone accused of making assertions the government might consider inconvenient or deem to constitute an offence against the public peace. The ruling was approved by the Duarte-controlled congressional caucus of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)[3] at a procedural session.[4] To their votes were added those of five opposition members.[5]

These attempts at control collapsed on the very same day when – in an image that would soon circle the world – a group of criminals, operating in broad daylight left 35 people dead in the middle of a busy boulevard in the municipality of Boca del Rio. The state authorities’ first act was to morally denigrate the victims, linking then all to crimes of abduction, extortion, murder and drug dealing, in addition to assaulting national media correspondents who were investigating details of the case.[6]

The subsequent discovery of a further 32 bodies by navy personnel in three separate safe houses brought the prosecution proceedings to a halt, but did not put an end to the threats. On 23 October, an Internet based medium came under cyber attack. The assailants were suspected members of an organised criminal gang that had previously warned it they would take similar action against other sites that disseminated information about groups engaged in drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion in Veracruz.

A few hours after the administrator had decided to unsubscribe from his Blogger account (the platform from where the content was managed) due to an incident which, he believed, had compromised his identity, the information on the site was replaced by the legend: “This will happen to all the blogs that report what is going on in Veracruz (MUNDONARCO.com y Blog del Narco will be next) Pónganse ver.., , atte.     From the letter Zzzzz”. [sic] The Twitter account was closed down some days later.

Use of public resources
In Veracruz, control of public information is also maintained through the use of government publicity as a means of rewarding kindred media and as a weapon with which to punish critics. In 2010, Fundar Centro de Análisis e Investigación and ARTICLE 19 launched a project aimed at examining the use of public resources in the creation and design of government publicity.

A request for data on the state government's total expenditure on social communication and government publicity for the period 2005–2010, with a breakdown on expenditure per medium of communication, was turned down by Veracruz on the grounds that the information in question was classified.

A year and nine months later, after going through all the required stages and procedures, and applying to all the relevant entities in the state, we still do not know what media companies or operations have benefited from this far from transparent use of public resources. It has been necessary to embark on a protracted legal battle, which has now reached the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice. The court exercised its power to assert jurisdiction in this matter and eventually ordered the publication of information that would clearly reveal the degree of discretion with which the last two governments have acted.

The state government’s participation in this human rights crisis, and in particular in assaults on local journalists, in which it has also played an active role, has been crucial. Just a few hours after the news of the assassination on 26 July 2011 of Yolanda Ordaz, reporter on the Notiver newspaper, the then State Attorney General appeared in the media to deny that the crime was related to the reporter's professional activities. Her murder, he said, was the result of the relationship that some journalists establish with mafia gangs.

Notiver called for the attorney-general to resign, to which he replied by publicly exhibiting, as proof of his statement, videos which had been uploaded on YouTube screening extra-judicial interrogations by criminals of members of a rival group. A number of journalists, including Ordaz, were mentioned by name during the proceedings.

For the state government, the testimony of suspected criminals extracted under duress was conclusive proof: the reporter had connections with organised criminal gangs, which she purportedly “supported by helping them manage information”. This placed several reporters mentioned in the videos in a highly awkward position and reinforced reports of the existence of a list of journalists marked out by organised crime gangs, as a result of which a number (some 13 cases are known) were compelled to leave the state.

The strategy of silencing journalists and the measures to control information were also the work of the state government.




[1] ARTICLE 19, Regional Office for Mexico and Central America and the National Centre for Social Communication (Cencos).

[2] María de Jesús Bravo Pagola and Gilberto Martínez Vera were arrested by representatives of the Office of the State Attorney-General of Veracruz on 26 August. Five days later, the judge, Beatriz Hernandez, seated in Xalapa, bound the accused  over for trial. ARTICLE 19 filed an Amicus Curiae brief to be taken into account in the injunction, submitted on behalf of both the accused, in which it was argued that the charges were clearly incompatible with the conventions on human rights adopted by the Mexican state in matters relating to freedom of expression.

[3]    Institutional Revolutionary Party.

[4]    The reform proposal was carried by 33 votes to 14, and was published in a special edition of the Gaceta Oficial (Official Gazette) on the same evening it was passed. It is available to readers at http://www.editoraveracruz.gob.mx/gacetas/2011/09/Gac2011-298%20Martes%2….

[5]    Gustavo Moreno, Isaac González, Ulises Ochoa and Verónica Carreón, of the Nueva Alianza (New Alliance) party, and Brenda Abigail Reyes, of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) (Party of the Democratic Revolution).

[6]    Reporters from W Radio, Noticias MVS and the Notimex news agency were attacked and threatened by elements of the Agencia Veracruzana de Investigación (the Veracruz Investigations Agency) while documenting the unsanitary conditions under which the 35 corpses were being kept at the Instituto de Medicina Forense (Institute of Forensic Medicine), and collecting testimony from the families of the deceased that contradicted the official versions.