It’s well known that Mexico can be a dangerous place to be a journalist — especially for reporters who cover stories related to the drug war and organized crime. But, it’s also increasingly true that just covering political protests can get reporters into trouble.
According to the latest report by the press freedom organization Article 19, released this month, there were 330 “acts of aggression” against journalists in Mexico in 2013. The list of incidents compiled by the NGO includes four homicides, seven kidnappings, and one case of a journalist from Veracruz who was abducted in July and hasn’t been seen since.
But a large bulk of attacks against Mexican journalists in 2013 occurred during political rallies, in which police have beaten or arbitrarily detained reporters who were documenting clashes between riot police and leftist protesters.
According to researchers, this is a sign that protests in Mexico have become more violent, and police have become less tolerant of those trying to scrutinize these events.
“This year, Mexico City took the first place [among Mexico’s 32 states] in attacks against journalists” said Francisco Sandoval, the communications director for Article 19.
“That happened because in just one protest in Mexico City, on October 2nd, there were 32 acts of aggression against journalists,” Sandoval said.
According to Article 19’s numbers, up to 20% of acts of attacks against journalists last year, could have happened during political rallies.
Jose Jimenez, a freelance photographer, was almost beaten to death with a fire extinguisher by police officers on October 2nd, as he covered clashes between police and protesters who were commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Tlatelolco student massacre in Mexico City.
Gustavo Ruiz, a reporter for a small news agency, was locked up for 4 days, shortly after he took photos of police officers detaining large numbers of protesters, during an anti-government rally on September 1st.
“Police are supposed to respect and understand the work of the press in these contexts,” Sandoval said. “But many police use excessive force and violate human rights when they detain protesters, or criminal suspects, and that’s were problems emerge with journalists trying to report on these actions.”
Journalists who cover the activities of criminal groups, and their ties to local officers have also been subjected to death threats, arbitrary arrests and lawsuits from officials who pull their strings in local courts to threaten reporters with fines and prison time.
According to article 19 there were 53 threats against journalists in 2013, including dozens of death threats over the phone. There were also 15 cases in which officials undertook defamation lawsuits against journalists, who wrote articles that were unfavorable to their cause.
Here’s Article 19’s break-down of aggressions against journalists in 2013:
Total Acts of Agression: 330
Physical Attacks: 146
Threats Against Journalists: 53
Acts of Judicial Intimidation [lawsuits]: 15
Abductions “Disappeared” Journalists: 2
Arbitrary Arrests: 36
Cyber Attacks Against Media: 12
Indirect Threats: 53
Journalist Forced to Move: 1
According to Sandoval, assassinations, kidnappings, death threats, and acts of physical aggression have hurt journalism in Mexico, as these events force reporters to limit what issues they cover, and how deep they go into topics like the actions of corrupt officers and criminal groups.
Carmen Olsen, a journalist in Baja California State used to investigate acts of corruption committed by the police chief of Rosarito, a town located just 25 km from the U.S. border.
On January 4th 2013, she was harassed by municipal police officers as she tried to take pictures of someone getting arrested. Policemen bruised Olsen severely as they tried to drag her out of her car. She managed to stay in the car, but then policemen had it towed away, and paraded through the center of the city, while Olsen was still in it. Olsen was detained for three hours, illegally, as there were no charges to arrest her on.
“They tried to humiliate me, and intimidate me, by parading my car through the streets,” Olsen said. “El Chapo Guzman got better treatment than I did when he was arrested.”
Olsen says that in the months following her detention Rosarito Police Chief Francisco Castro filed a defamation complaint against her, that could get her prison time under Baja California law. She now travels around town with a body guard, and has stopped covering events like arrests and murder sites. Olsen has also drastically toned down coverage of police abuses and crimes in Rosarito on her website.
“I limit myself to re-publishing press releases now,” Olsen said. “That’s the only way that officials are going to leave me alone.”
Francisco Sandoval says that this type of conduct is not rare for journalists who’ve been attacked. He says that in most cases, reporters who are harassed by officials and criminal groups end up limiting the scope and depth of their reports.
“Fear leads them to censor themselves, to stop publishing some types of information or to not cover certain events,” Sandoval said.
According to Sandoval this problem has been particularly intense in states like Coahuila, Tamaulipas and Veracruz, where criminal organizations have managed to silence most major media organizations.
“In those places papers no longer talk about criminal acts, or about acts of government corruption. They don’t talk about the drug trade either,” Sandoval said.
“There are some blogs who cover those issues, or social media sites, but the media outlets with the bigger audiences no longer do it.”
Article 19, also seems to be under threat itself, for denouncing attacks against journalists.
Dario Ramirez, the organization’s director in Mexico, said that members of the group have been attacked six times over the past year. Unidentified people lurk outside his office recording who comes in and out of the building, and Ramirez was himself assaulted once on the street by men with a gun, who strangely, decided not to take any of his money.
Just two days before Article 19 presented its 2013 report, thieves broke into Ramirez’s house while he was away, and stole a laptop, a desktop computer and some jewelry.
“We don’t have definitive proof that this incident is related to my work as a journalist and human rights activist,” Ramirez said. “But while this is not investigated in-depth by officials, we are assuming that this aggression has resulted from the work we do.”
According to Ramirez attacks against journalists continue to grow in Mexico, because the government is doing little to punish aggressors.
Nine out of 10 incidents are not investigated, and when murders happen, officials usually try to deflect attention from these cases, by claiming that they were not related to the journalists’ work.
But Ramirez says Mexico also lacks proper mechanisms to protect journalists who are under threat. Officials take months to evaluate whether journalists who’ve received threats merit special protection, and funds allocated for the protection of journalists have not been properly disbursed.
“Nowadays, we only have protection on paper,” Ramirez said. “It’s very cheap to attack a journalist in Mexico, cause you know that there probably won’t be any punishment.”
See the Full Report [In Spanish] Here:
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.