The lethal war on Mexico’s journalists

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John Ralston Saul – June 3, 2011

Mexico’s human-rights rhetoric is second to none. It has been like this for a decade. The government has signed or ratified more than 20 human-rights treaties and considered more than 1,000 recommendations from various human-rights organizations.

These fine words and political gestures contradict the failure of successive administrations to tackle the reality of Mexican corruption and impunity – issues intensified by President Felipe Calderon’s “war on drugs.”

One horrendous byproduct of the war on drugs has been what amounts to systemic state-sanctioned violence against journalists who expose government corruption and its ties to drug traffickers. Given the number killed per year, Mexico is now the world’s most dangerous country in which to be a journalist. In 2010, it tied with Pakistan for this honour.

Mr. Calderon began militarizing his campaign against the drug trafficking organizations in December, 2006. The resulting wave of violence that killed more than 35,000 Mexicans, provoked an unprecedented spree of threats, kidnappings and torture, all aimed at intimidating the public and silencing the press. As many as 66 journalists have been killed, most of them in the northern border states.

Faced with this crisis, Mr. Calderon’s administration has continued the pattern established by its predecessor. It attempts to beguile Mexicans and international observers with superficially impressive measures that do little to halt a worsening human-rights crisis. Most attacks on journalists are not properly investigated. And when they are, authorities rarely secure convictions. Many of the most vaunted legal reforms are patently hollow.

Take the creation of a special prosecutor’s office for the attention to crimes committed against freedom of expression. It sounds wonderful, except that the prosecutor has no formal powers to investigate these crimes or to lay charges. Or even to handle drug trafficking cases. Four years of carnage and the office has averaged no more than a single prosecution a year.

This and a great deal more is laid out in a new report, Corruption, Impunity, Silence: The War on Mexico’s Journalists. This is a joint effort by the University of Toronto faculty of law’s international human-rights program and the Canadian centre of PEN International. It deals with the Mexican government’s deceptive manoeuvres, and its related failure to stand up against repeated assaults on free expression.

This is the most thorough investigation I have seen of the Mexican situation. The report blames a “strategy of minimization” in which the Mexican government deliberately “crafts a minimal concession, such as a bill or policy that does not actually solve the problem” while trumpeting its efforts to all who will listen. The report is clear: This strategy has led to deaths, human-rights violations and limitations on freedom of expression.

The Mexican government insists that attacks on journalists “are perpetrated, essentially without exception, by organized crime.” This new report lays out indications that in 2009, state agents were responsible for two out of every three recorded attacks. Journalists have learned to “steer clear of provocative local reportage.” In Ciudad Juarez and parts of Tamaulipas, practically no information enters or leaves the state unless it has been vetted by some combination of state authorities and organized crime.

Free expression in Mexico is stifled by heavy-handed authoritarian attitudes that have survived the country’s recent democratic changes. Community radio broadcasters who face no known threats from drug traffickers are routinely subject to violence, intimidation and sometimes death. The most likely source of these attacks? Local politicians. The state eagerly prosecutes many of these citizen journalists, using Byzantine regulatory procedures. Antiquated criminal libel, slander and defamation laws remain on the books in 15 states. Civil defamation suits are routinely used to silence journalists.

Canada and the United States should be deeply disturbed by their NAFTA partner’s disregard for freedom of the press and the safety of journalists. Neither has held Mr. Calderon’s government to account for its disastrous drug war, nor for its evasions and false claims about the resulting impunity and violence against journalists. Instead they seem to accept at face value the ongoing rhetoric of high-sounding recommendations and toothless reforms. In late May, the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights went to Mexico, where it sided with “all human-rights defenders” and called for “an end to impunity.”

But the subcommittee couldn’t help expressing encouraging words, for example about the special prosecutor’s office and a recently created journalist protection program. Yet, as the University of Toronto-PEN Canada report clearly demonstrates, neither of these programs has provided any real protection.

Until the governments of Canada and the United States and bodies such as the European Parliament question the façade of reassuring rhetoric, Mexico’s lethal war on journalists will continue. This war, commonly described as a struggle against drug lords, has a great deal more to do with police, military and political links to organized crime, decades of government corruption and institutionalized limitations on freedom of expression.

John Ralston Saul is the international president of PEN International.

Original article on Globe and Mail website