The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) recently published its report on journalists and media staff killed in 2019 across the world. According to the report, 2019 is the first year since 2000 when journalists killings dipped below 50, but Latin America holds the non-enviable title of the region with the highest recorded death toll with 18 killings.
Mexico recorded the highest number of victims among its Latin American counterparts—and the entire world—with 10 journalists and media professionals killed. Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has constantly flagged the country as the most dangerous for journalists—barely behind war torn Syria—with a record of 52 journalists killed and 14 journalists missing since 1992.
To make matters worse, journalists in Mexico—and especially those who report on cartels, narco-trafficking and violence—face a double threat, one by the perpetrators of crimes and violence, and another from the polarized public debate instigated by Mexico’s own president.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is constantly at odds with the press, and for that matter anyone, that dares to question the “transformative” vision he’s set for the country. For example, during one of his daily morning press conferences (mañaneras), AMLO engaged in a hectic confrontation with Jorge Ramos—a Univisión journalist who is known for his tough questioning of world leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and AMLO’s predecessors. During an April 2019 mañanera, Ramos questioned the president on Mexico’s rising homicide rate and violence, pressing AMLO with short term solutions to the safety of both Mexican citizens and journalists. Following the confrontation with Ramos—who has even recognized AMLO’s openness to establish direct dialogue with the media—AMLO warned the press that “you know what happens” if you go over the line. According to Ana Ruelas, that leads Article 19, a local organization that defends freedom of the press, “the President’s stigmatizing speech emboldens those who want to go against the press.” In one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist—a fundamental job in a democracy—AMLO’s words are not without consequence, directly undermining Mexico’s incipient democracy, and indirectly threatening the well-being of media professionals.
Behind Mexico, Honduras recorded the killings of three journalists: Leonardo Gabriel Hernandez, Edgar Joel Aguilar and José Arita. In the case of Arita, the television journalist was shot as he was leaving his job at Channel 12. According to initial investigations, four men were waiting for Arita outside of the station. Eighty-four journalists have been killed in Honduras since 2001, and according to the President of the Honduras College of Journalists, Dagoberto Rodríguez, only seven killings have been solved. Impunity is a constant theme in a majority of cases of journalist killings in Honduras, and across Latin America.
Tied in third place with two killings is Brazil and Haiti, followed by Colombia with one killing. As in Mexico, anti-journalist sentiments have increased in Brazil with the rise of President Jair Bolsonaro. Like in most cases, journalists targeted cover issues of corruption. Recently, prosecutors in São Paulo accused American journalist Glenn Greenwald, founder of The Intercept Brasil, of being part of a “criminal” group of hackers that obtained information from the mobile phones of Brazilian prosecutors and judges involved with the Operation Car Wash case. The Intercept Brasil went on to publish the leaked information that allegedly shows now-Justice Minister Sérgio Moro had worked with prosecutors to charge former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of corruption. Although a Judge upheld a previous Supreme Court ruling dismissing the charges, the situation highlights how journalists uncovering political corruption are persecuted in Brazil.
On the 2019 edition of World Press Freedom Day, Jan Albert Hootsen, Mexico Representative of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, wisely said that “freedom of the press is one of the main lines of defense against authoritarianism, that on a global level, threatens so many vulnerable democracies. Unfortunately, freedom of the press in the Americas seems to be going backwards across the ideological spectrum. From right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to left-wing Mexico’s AMLO’s, the common denominator is repression of any criticism to their vision of where their respective countries should be heading. But curtailing freedom of the press, a basic pillar of free societies, will only end up undermining the fragile democracies of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the people’s right to be informed.