For decades, reports by professional journalists have uncovered major crimes and corruption cases bringing down the powerful (Watergate in the U.S., Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello’s ousting in 1992). However, as the years have gone by, attacks on the media, and attacks on those who connect the dots have increased. We see this clearly in the U.S., where President Donald Trump has not been afraid to call out the media’s criticisms and labeling them fake news. But even as Trump begins to go after legal protections for journalists’ in the U.S., the situation is far worse in Latin America, where direct threats on the media and journalist killings are on the rise.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 2017 alone, four journalists were murdered in Mexico with a confirmed motive behind the killings: investigative journalism. Ricardo Monlui Cabrera, a journalist for El Político, was also murdered last March, but the reasons are still unclear. The state where Monlui Cabrera was murdered, Veracruz, was labeled by New York Times bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Azam Ahmed, the most dangerous place to be a reporter in the Western Hemisphere.
Freedom of expression is recognized under Articles 6 and 7 of the Mexican Constitution. The government has passed laws, offered reporters panic buttons, given them surveillance equipment, and even hired armed guards to protect them. However, the federal government has often ruled that crimes against journalists are not attacks on freedom of expression and therefore don’t warrant federal involvement. Since 2000, federal investigators have reviewed 117 killings of journalists, but chose to pursue only eight. Although the Mexican Supreme Court has rejected the federal government’s standard, there are no binding laws that allow crimes against journalists to be tried in federal court.
But the truth is that the constant attack on the media is not a problem of insufficient laws; it’s a problem of impunity. According to Article 19, a British human rights organization focused on freedom of expression, of the 427 assaults on the media and journalists registered in 2016 in Mexico, 99.7 percent remain unpunished. The Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) has only managed to secure a conviction in three cases. Among the reasons behind FEADLE’s ineffectiveness are lack of personnel, funding and political will to solve attacks on media professionals in a forceful and rightful manner. One of the latest examples of this prosecution inertia is Ricardo Sánchez Pérez del Pozo—FEADLE’s most recent appointment to head the office—failing to attend a hearing with the Chamber of Deputies’ Special Commission to Monitor Attacks on Journalists and the Media, this past June—days before “commemorating” the Freedom of Expression Day in Mexico.
According to Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom of the Press report, another reason for the lack of convictions is a disregard for links between crimes and the victims’ status as media workers. Often times the government is quick to discredit a journalist’s murder because, even before investigations are completed, it attributes the case to causes other than its profession. In the case of Ruben Espinosa, who was murdered in an apartment in Mexico City in 2015, prosecutor’s blamed Espinosa’s death on his presence at a party featuring drugs, prostitutes and his soon to be murderers. Because Espinosa was not murdered while doing his job, the government refused to recognize this as an attack against journalism.
Most significant is the involvement of government officials in attacks on the media. While some reasons for journalist killings include random violence and drug cartels irritated with aggressive coverage on organized crime, according to government data, public servants like mayors and police officers have attacked journalists the most. Journalists who cover corruption, especially corruption at the local level, have greater risk of being attacked by officials. Multiple cases show reporters have been murdered, beaten and tortured at the order of local officials.
The revelation that the Mexican government used anti terrorism spyware to target journalists, activists, human rights lawyers, and international investigators showed attacks against journalism aren’t just at the local level, but at the national level as well. The campaign of harassment and interference began as a means to prevent investigators from solving the case of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, but it also targeted journalists who covered corruption within the government. Under Mexican law, only a federal judge can authorize the surveillance of private communications exclusively if officials can demonstrate a sound basis for the request. And according to intelligence officials, it is highly unlikely the government received judicial approval. The scandal was an unprecedented effort to counter the fight against corruption in Mexico.
Similar to Mexico, Brazil has enacted constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, and even progressed into the digital arena. For example, in 2014 Brazil passed the Internet Bill of Rights (Marco Civil da Internet) that protects user privacy and online freedom of expression, among other rights and obligations for the use of Internet in Brazil. But even this breaking achievement has not been enough to reverse judicial censorship, journalist killings and government involvement in media attacks. Such is the case of Pedro Palma, owner of the weekly newspaper Panorama Regional, gunned down in 2014 presumably for publishing stories on corruption and negligence among local governments in Rio de Janeiro state.
In Colombia the story is no different. Journalist killings in Colombia reached a peak between 1998 and 2003, mainly related to the guerrilla conflict. But although the killings have decreased ever since, threats strongly persist. CPJ recently reported death threats against documentary filmmaker and human rights activist Bladimir Sánchez Espitia. Threats could be coming from mining companies and political figures tied to the development projects Sánchez Espitia covers in his documentaries.
Whether it’s at the hands of government officials, multinational corporations or mafiosos, journalism and activism have turned into deadly professions in Latin America. Numerous laws have been enacted and included in the constitutions of several countries in the region to safeguard freedom of expression and yet the number of murdered journalists and activists is increasing. So what needs to be done? How can the plague be prevented from spreading further into civil society? The answer, at least partial, is to combat government impunity, supply judicial actors—especially at the local level—with adequate funding to prevent and prosecute cases, and for society to continue demanding greater accountability. Now, how will this be applied and who will be in charge? That is a question that both investigative journalism and the public in our right to access free and impartial information must urgently address.