With no shortage of domestic news, and a raging war in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, it’s natural to wonder why Americans should pay attention to the surging violence against the press south of the border.
But we must. When the United States sneezes, Mexico catches a cold, goes a common saying about our intertwined economies. But the dynamic works both ways when it comes to press freedoms. When the cost of killing a journalist in Mexico is close to zero, it devalues the lives of journalists everywhere.
In Mexico, eight journalists have been killed this year alone. That’s an unprecedented rate — almost one per week — for a country that’s not officially at war. Yet the violence against the Mexican press is on the rise: It has consistently topped the list of the deadliest countries in which to be a journalist in recent years.
There have been some discernible geographic patterns in the killing of Mexican journalists. That creates a chilling effect that in turn produces what some call “zones of silence.” The latest victim was Armando Linares López in the state of Michoacán. He was the cofounder of the news website Monitor Michoacán, which had reported on alleged corruption in state and local government, and was the second member of that news organization killed this year. The website has shut down.
Yolanda Morales, a Mexican journalist based in Tijuana who frequently reports on border issues such as the recent arrival of Ukrainian and Russian asylum-seekers to the area, told me she is afraid. “The day Lourdes Maldonado was killed . . . life changed” for journalists, she said via WhatsApp audio message, referring to a reporter killed in Tijuana in January. “You don’t leave your house to do your job thinking you’re going to die or you’re going to get killed, but now that’s a possibility. We’re very exposed.” The work of telling stories, of telling the truth, is always going to bother someone, Morales said.
American author and journalist Ioan Grillo, who is based in Mexico, has it right when he writes that “a central feature underlying the slaughter of journalists in Mexico over the last two decades” is “the lethal combination of paramilitary organized crime entwined with corrupt police and politicians.” That’s what Grillo calls “narco politics,” and what may very well be behind the journalist killings. In the face of a justice system that results in impunity far too many times, combined with the sheer power and influence that drug cartels have in practically all elements of Mexican society, it is nothing short of heroic to be a journalist in Mexico.
Indeed, most of these crimes against journalists remain unsolved despite the fact that Mexico maintains a special prosecutor’s office to investigate crimes against freedom of expression. But many advocates argue the office is underfunded and unresponsive. The two Tijuana journalists murdered earlier this year were apparently under state protection.
Meanwhile, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has reacted with indignation and denial in reaction to international condemnation of the killings. Just days before Linares’s murder, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging Mexico to take “necessary steps to ensure the protection and the creation of a safe environment for journalists and human rights defenders in line with established international standards” and calling on “the authorities, and in particular the highest ones, to refrain from issuing any communication which could stigmatize human rights defenders, journalists, and media workers,” referring to López Obrador’s increased verbal attacks and offensive rhetoric against the press.
Yet López Obrador promptly dismissed the resolution and fired back in an uncharacteristically cutting letter, calling on the European body to stop their “corruption, lies, and hypocrisy” and accusing its members of behaving like “sheep” following “the reactionary and coup-like strategy of the corrupt group that opposes” his administration.
López Obrador’s defiant reaction makes it even more urgent for the Biden administration to show more than just rhetorical solidarity with the press in Mexico. Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists have called on Biden to name a special presidential envoy for press freedom. That would be a step in the right direction to reestablish US standing as a beacon of the free press, a reputation that was so weakened by the Donald Trump administration.
Silencing, and even killing, reporters is straight out of the dictators playbook — one can look to Russia as a prime example. In Mexico, the murders are carried out by proxy, with an indifferent government passively looking on. It’s a radical form of censorship in a “free” country, and not that many steps removed from the vilification of journalists in the United States as “enemies of the people.” And therein lies the problem: Censoring the media is a dangerous, slippery slope.