Sharp rise in murders of journalists in Mexico prompts calls for change

Journalists reporting on corruption, violence and cartels in Mexico are risking their lives. In the first 40 days of this year, four Mexican journalists were murdered. Of the 133 journalists killed since 2000, nearly 90 percent have gone unpunished. Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the first 40 days of this year, four Mexican journalists have been murdered in targeted killings. Even for a country that was already the world's deadliest for journalists, the surge has sparked calls for better protection and fundamental reforms.

    Nick Schifrin reports on a war on truth and why Mexico is unable to stop it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To report on corruption, cartels, and violence in Mexico is to risk your life, 49-year-old photographer Margarito Martinez killed by gunmen on January 17 outside his home in Tijuana, one week before, in Veracruz, Jose Luis Gamboa stabbed to death, in Michoacan on January 31, cameraman and editor Roberto Toledo shot to death, and on January 23, broadcast journalist Lourdes Maldonado Lopez found murdered in her car.

    Back in 2019, she warned Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador her life was in danger.

  • Lourse Maldando Lopez, Journalist (through translator):

    I come here as well to ask for your support, help and justice at my workplace, because I even fear for my life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Lopez Obrador announced three people had been arrested in her murder.

    But, of the 133 journalists killed since 2000, more than 90 percent have gone unpunished. And when journalists recently held a vigil, the names and faces of their murdered colleagues filled the Interior Ministry's front gate.

    And to discuss this, I'm joined by Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Committee to Protect Journalists' Mexico representative.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So why do you think we have seen this spike in violence against journalists?

    Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico Representative, Committee to Protect Journalists: Well, I think what we're seeing right now is the logical result of many, many years of negligence by the Mexican state both in being able to protect journalists and human rights defenders and in combating impunity.

    Mexico's long suffered from the proliferation of organized crime in much of its national territory. And the journalists are in a uniquely vulnerable position. They cover crime. They cover corruption. They cover human rights abuses.

    There's usually, especially in the smaller areas, in the smaller towns and communities, a very small pool of journalists, so they're easily identifiable. And, very often, local authorities that are colluding with organized crime are also involved in these attacks. So, it's — for them, it's incredibly difficult to report these crimes, and to turn to anybody who might protect them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Localization of violence is something that I asked a security expert in Mexico City, Alejandro Hope, earlier today in an interview.

    Let's take a listen to what he had to say.

  • Alejandro Hope, Security Analyst:

    The journalists that are more at risk in Mexico are the ones that are covering local news, stories about local corruption about local ties between politicians and criminal actors. Organized crime in Mexico has become much more of a local issue, and dangerously so.

    Twenty years ago, drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico were almost interchangeable terms. Now you have a much more diversified set of criminal actors. You have a much more fluid ecosystem.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Does more localized and varied sources of violence, has that made journalists work more dangerous?

  • Jan-Albert Hootsen:

    Absolutely.

    We get a lot of reports from reporters who, like Margarito Martinez, the photographer who was killed in Tijuana, spend their days basically chasing violent incidents, shoot-outs, bodies being dropped next to roads, accidents, etcetera.

    And what we hear very often is that when these reporters are covering these kinds of incidents, that they're threatened by gangs, they're threatened by family members of victims. They're threatened by police officers, sometimes followed.

    And, in some cases, this may lead to attacks near their homes. So I think it's absolutely right what Alejandro Hope was saying. And especially given the fact that many of — many Mexican organized criminal groups have fractured and have become much smaller, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the authorities to combat these groups and for journalists even know where dangers might be coming from.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Police investigations, prosecutions, they're often weak and corrupt in Mexico. Is that why we're seeing a near impunity in terms of those who commit violence against journalists?

  • Jan-Albert Hootsen:

    Absolutely.

    And I think are two things going on here. First, there's the very obvious collusion between agents of the state and organized crime or the simple fact that many authorities in Mexico are willing to use extreme violence against journalists and human rights defenders.

    But, on the other hand, there also just the lack of interest from authorities, both federal, state and municipal, to properly investigate these crimes. Many of the cases that we have been investigating have these elements of police officers not showing up, not taking reports seriously, not applying even the most basic due diligence work that you would expect authorities to apply.

    And all of that leads to a situation in which it's almost guaranteed that a crime against a journalist is never solved. With disappearances and with murders, it's almost 100 percent. It's the same thing with non-lethal crimes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And what about protection? Is the government doing enough to try and protect journalists?

  • Jan-Albert Hootsen:

    There are a few institutions, both on the state and federal level, that have been ostensibly created to protect journalists and human rights defenders, while most of the state agencies are only rudimentary.

    They exist in many states in name only, don't have their own budget, hardly have any staff. And, also, they have to work together with many of the police forces, for example, that are often accused of being the ones behind attacks against reporters.

    On the federal level, the situation is slightly better. But, even there, we're talking about an institution, the federal mechanism, it's called, that has very little in terms of money, resources. It has very few staff. It works completely from Mexico City, meaning that it doesn't have any regional spread, no regional representatives, and very often doesn't have the knowledge, the know-how to deal with these situations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, finally, I wonder, in terms of Lopez Obrador himself and his senior officials, is how they talk about, how they treat journalists creating a culture that makes journalists' lives and work more dangerous?

  • Jan-Albert Hootsen:

    I think the relationship between President Lopez Obrador and the press has been extremely tense and strained since the beginning of his administration.

    He assumed office three years ago. And, since then, he has spent most of his time actually attacking reporters, disqualifying them, calling them — those who are critical and independent, he calls them corrupt. He calls them right-wingers. He calls them opponents of his political project.

    And I think that has two very disconcerting effects. On the one hand, there's that he gives off a sign to his own institutions that journalists are not people who should be taken seriously as victims of crimes. And, at the same time, he makes it much harder for organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists to convey the urgency that these crimes need to be addressed, because he still has a very large support among the Mexican population, anywhere between 40 and 60 percent.

    And most of those people, they trust the president more than they trust most media. So, to them, what he says about the media, what he says about journalists is true.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jan-Albert Hootsen, thank you very much.

  • Jan-Albert Hootsen:

    Thanks for having me, Nick.

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