By: Sofia Rada, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, a journalist in Mexico City and four women were murdered in an apartment. For more information, read this press release by COHA.
Ismael Díaz López, a Mexican journalist in the southeastern state of Tabasco, died in June after being stabbed in his own home by unidentified intruders. The Attorney General of Tabasco said in a statement, “the strongest line of research suggests that a domestic conflict caused the murder.” However, Article 19, a prominent press watchdog group from the U.K., has urged authorities not to dismiss Díaz López’s profession as a possible cause for his murder.
Díaz López’s death is particularly disconcerting in light of uncovered statistics concerning the press in Mexico: a journalist was assaulted every 26.7 hours in 2014. Currently, under the Enrique Peña Nieto Administration, assaults on the press have nearly doubled compared to those during former President Felipe Calderón’s term. Attacks against communicators are rising and, in most cases, impunity prevails. Furthermore, more than half of the perpetrators are linked to the state. This atmosphere has led many journalists to either flee the country or self-censor to ensure their own safety.  As a result, there has been a serious lack of local coverage on important events and issues.
Contributing to this lack of coverage is the fact that two main television companies—Televisa and TV Azteca—have come to dominate the Mexican media.  The lack of pluralism in reporting has enabled these companies to exert strong influence over national politics and they are often accused of corruption. There have been allegations that reporting is obstructed by censorship and government influence outside of the television industry as well.
While there are a few laws protecting freedom of the press in Mexico, these are limited and poorly administered. Additionally, states governments often abuse their power by intimidating journalists. Thus a lack of press freedom pervades Mexico, seriously damaging the prospects for democracy in this country.
More than 80 journalists have been killed in Mexico in the past decade and 17 more have disappeared. In 2014 alone, there were 142 physical attacks against journalists, 53 cases of intimidation or pressure, and 45 arbitrary detentions. Journalists are often the victims of threats and armed attacks, especially in northern Mexico. These acts of violence are sometimes the work of drug cartels trying to prevent the coverage of organized crime and related violence. However, political authorities and police forces have been responsible for the largest share of these attacks, according to Freedom House, a conservative watchdog organization. Still, Freedom House affirms that participants in organized crime are “primarily behind the most chilling incidents.”
Violence has also taken a psychological toll on Mexican journalists. A 2012 study by researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico found that 35 percent of Mexico’s press professionals experienced symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. This level was significantly higher for those who directly covered the drug war. The Women’s Communication and Information Association found that women were especially at risk for psychological trauma. In addition to being killed and disappeared, like their male coworkers, female journalists faced threats directed toward their children and personal attacks related to their gender.
Censorship, Anonymity, and Escape
The constant threat of violence has led many journalists to censor themselves. Many members of the media have said they will no longer cover drug trafficking for fear of violent reprisals. Those who do cover sensitive topics such as the drug war and government collusion with organized crime, often leave information out of their reporting. Complete information about the country’s violence and corruption therefore never reaches the citizenry.
In an effort to report more freely on violence and organized crime, journalists are turning to online social networks. According to Reporters Without Borders, the Internet has in many cases become the only place to find information on violence linked to the drug cartels. This also allows for a greater degree of anonymity than traditional media, and therefore greater freedom to report on risky topics. Use of the Internet has led to the rise of “citizen journalists,” who report on violence, threats, and corruption related to the drug war. Valor por Tamaulipas (Courage for Tamaulipas), for example, is a citizen news group, which runs on Twitter and Facebook. The group publishes information about missing persons and news alerts about violence, which include the location and time of incidents. Even so, one of its members, who used the pseudonym “Felina” (Feline) to report information about violence, was killed by drug cartels after receiving repeated threats, indicating that this new generation of journalists is not immune from danger.
Many journalists have found that fleeing is the only way to ensure their safety and that of their families. The majority has fled to Mexico City or abroad. According to the newspaper El Universal, 18 journalists sought aid from the Mexico City Human Rights Commission in 2012, compared to 5 in 2010 and 10 in 2011.
Impunity and Ineffective Legislation
Articles 6 and 7 of the Mexican constitution establish freedom of expression.  Mexico decriminalized defamation on the federal level in 2007 and a number of states have also eliminated their own criminal defamation statutes, including the state of Mexico, which is the most populous. Still, freedom of expression is not well protected and few who perpetrate threats and violence face punishment. According to Reporters Without Borders, the police and judicial investigations into these cases are often closed quickly or are paralyzed by bureaucracy. There is widespread complicity between organized crime and government authorities, which have been “corrupted or infiltrated by the cartels at all levels.” Most recently, the escape of notorious drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán from Mexico’s highest-security prison has demonstrated the weaknesses of the government’s judicial capabilities, especially in the face of organized crime.
The Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists, established in 2006, has been largely ineffective, having made only one conviction since its inception. Jurisdictional weaknesses, a lack of transparency, an insufficient number of investigators, and the need to draw upon the resources of several rival agencies, all hamper the office’s capacity. Additionally, journalists are often unwilling to turn to the government for help due to a lack of trust.
In 2012, the Mexican legislature passed a constitutional amendment allowing federal authorities to take charge of investigating and prosecuting crimes affecting the work of journalists. This has led to the creation of a Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, but this body has been widely criticized as inadequate. As mentioned, despite the new legislation, attacks on journalists have actually increased during Peña Nieto’s term in office.
Additionally, state criminal and civil codes continue to be used to intimidate journalists. The government of Puebla state sued two journalists in October for damaging the reputation of public officials. A list of 19 journalists who were being monitored by the authorities was leaked hours before the suits were filed. Through Twitter, the state governor’s press agent announced that the press would continue to be under “review.”
The Televisa Empire
“La Dictadura Perfecta” (The Perfect Dictatorship), a 2014 Mexican comedy film, depicts how a governor hires a television company to help clean up his image. The governor’s image had been tarnished after being caught on camera doing business with criminals. Yet the company is able to restore his image by providing sensationalist coverage of the kidnapping of twin girls and a staged rescue by the governor.
Despite being fictional, the film has been regarded as a veracious criticism of the television industry in Mexico. The television company in the film closely resembles Televisa, the world’s largest Spanish-language media company. The film’s director Luis Estrada claims that Televisa had agreed to distribute the film but later decided against it after executives saw an early cut of the film.
In fact, Televisa has been subject to extensive controversy. This has included accusations of propping up the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party; PRI), which held power for 70 years until 2000. When the PRI returned to power in 2012, Televisa was accused of carrying out a pro-PRI campaign. In 2012, The Guardian published an “alleged outline of fees apparently charged by Televisa for raising Peña Nieto’s profile when governor of the state of Mexico.” These outlines listed nearly 200 news reports, interviews and features. The Guardian specified that the fees were only “alleged” and that both Peña Nieto and Televisa contended that the document could be a forgery. Despite this, under pressure from Televisa, the Guardian published a joint statement with the media company in 2013 in which the newspaper emphasized the uncertainty of the document’s authenticity. For its part, Televisa denied all allegations.
Although the exposé never cited conclusive proof, it brought attention both to the corruption in the media and the power it wields. While university students united in protest against the alleged corruption, Peña Nieto won the presidential election with a clear majority. Observers continue to see this victory as a product of Televisa.
Additionally, the lack of pluralism in reporting has had a profound effect on the state of the media. Televisa and TV-Azteca now maintain 90 percent of free and paid TV concessions in Mexico. This duopoly limits the information available and fosters skepticism about the nature of news broadcasting in Mexico. Because newspaper readership is low and many Mexicans have no access to the Internet or cable, these media companies are the main source of information and are therefore able to exert a powerful influence over national politics.
The Mexican government has addressed the issue of press plurality through new legislation that began with a proposal by Peña Nieto, later signed in 2014. The law aims to make the telecommunications sector more competitive and strengthen freedom of expression and access to information. According to the Wilson Center, the passage of the law “constitutes a significant breakthrough” for the president’s structural reform agenda and “has the potential to significantly alter Mexico’s media landscape, particularly through a strengthened regulatory framework charged with curtailing media monopolies.”
Others have found fault with the new reforms, however. Civil society organizations have been “strongly critical of the new law, stating that it limits the powers of the regulating body (which should be autonomous), avoids the necessary mechanisms to fight monopolies efficiently, restricts public and social media, and ignores the rights of audiences,” according to the Guardian. Freedom House points out that there has been no movement “to legalize and support community broadcasters” and that “only a handful of community radio operators have been awarded licenses.”
It’s Not Just Television
Although Televisa is possibly the most notorious source for biased and inaccurate reporting, these problems exist outside television media as well. Scandals have delegitimized other forms of media, as they are found to have censored reporters or provided false accounts of events. Mexican citizens and journalists have increasingly brought attention to and protested against these practices.
Prominent Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui has become especially outspoken, having been fired from her radio show after the station allegedly tried to censor her. Her website, Aristegui Noticias, published an exposé in 2014 on the Mexican first lady’s mansion and its possible conflict-of-interest connections with government contractors. MVS Radio, the radio company where Aristegui was previously employed, fired her and two other journalists who had worked on the mansion story this year. MVS radio stated that it had fired Aristegui’s colleagues for “compromising resources and brands of the company without authorization.” The company also insisted that Aristegui was fired not as censorship, but because she had given them an ultimatum to rehire the other two journalists. Additionally, the fact that Aristegui had talked about the scandal on her radio show and used MVS funding and resources for her investigation signal that she was not censored, according to MVS. Aristegui, however, has stated that MVS Radio tried to suppress her report before she published it on her own website and insists that it was limiting her freedom of expression.
Aristegui also insists that the president’s office was in support of the radio company. MVS has denied the accusation of government involvement with Mexico’s Interior Ministry stating adamantly that it was committed to a free and independent press. Nonetheless, Aristegui’s dismissal has amplified the discussion about censorship in Mexico.
While Aristegui claims to be a journalist who has been censored while trying to report accurately, other journalists have been found to be deliberately reporting incorrect information. This issue came to the fore when newspapers published misleading articles about Peña Nieto’s visit to Ibero University while he was running for office. After admitting to using public force against protesters when he was governor of Atenco in a speech at the university, the politician was met by crowds of student protesters. Mexican news outlets, however, reported that the candidate’s visit had been a success despite “attempts at boycott.” In addition, a university professor went on the radio to say that the protestors were hired thugs.
In response, students submitted videos showing their university IDs to prove that they were in fact students and that they had genuinely protested against Peña Nieto. A total of 131 clips were compiled and uploaded to YouTube. Students from Ibero and other universities subsequently formed a movement now known as “Yo Soy 132” (“I am the one-hundred and thirty-second.”) Today the movement’s chief demand is impartiality in media coverage of political campaigns.
While the dismissal of Aristegui and the events at Ibero gained a lot of attention in Mexico, many other cases have occurred without notice. The deaths of Díaz Lopez, dismissed by authorities as unrelated to his profession, and Felina, which occurred in a state heavily infiltrated by cartels, are just two of the hundreds of acts of violence that occur against journalists and go unpunished each year. However, the dismissal of Aristegui and the misleading coverage regarding Ibero have helped to reveal the serious problems with the press in Mexico and have helped mobilize people to demand change as seen with Yo Soy 132.
By: Sofia Rada, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.
Featured Photo: “Watchmen for freedom of the press” demonstration in Mexico City. From: Iván Martínez.