Fiscal reform, the future of the vital energy sector, education development, and the drug war are among the main challenges facing Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto. In order to confront endemic violence the administration has announced it will shift its anti-crime policy, led by outgoing President Felipe Calderón, of deploying thousands of soldiers to combat the powerful drug cartels.
While his proposal lacked specifics, the centerpiece of Peña Nieto’s plan is to create a new national security force, a 10,000 personnel paramilitary force, designed to gain control of areas where organized crime has taken hold.
The new administration will not be able to thrive in any of these areas if the Mexican media continues to be devastated in its ability to report the news. It is an extremely serious issue which, unfortunately, Peña Nieto has not yet addressed. In the last six years, pervasive violence has decimated the Mexican media: More than 50 journalists have been killed or disappeared during this period, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Powerful organized crime organizations still exert extraordinary pressure on the press as they extend their sway over every sector of society.
On top of dozens of journalists’ murders and disappearances, media outlets are targeted with explosives, and forced to muzzle themselves. Some reporters have gone into exile; others have abandoned their profession. Widespread censorship is the devastating consequence of this climate of fear and intimidation. Outside Mexico City, there are just a few outlets that have the courage and audacity to still cover crime and corruption aggressively, as persuasively shown in the documentary “ Reportero,” which tells the compelling story of the Tijuana-based newsmagazine Zeta. Compounding the problem is the rampant impunity in crimes against the press, particularly in murder cases.
The wave of unprecedented violence has gone way beyond the press and is affecting freedom of expression and access to information, fundamental human rights of all Mexicans. In vast areas of Mexico, issues that affect the lives of thousands of citizens are not even covered as journalists fear for their lives. This information vacuum is inhibiting debate on sensitive issues and putting democratic stability at risk. Mexican policy makers in the new administration as well as business leaders will have a hard time figuring out what are the best policies and strategies to put in place if the press cannot fulfill its work.
In March 2012, after years of advocacy by press freedom groups, the Senate approved legislation giving federal authorities jurisdiction over crimes against “journalists, people, or outlets that affects, limits, or impinges upon the right to information and freedom of expression and the press.” There are secondary laws that will effectively implement federalization under consideration in congress. With a dysfunctional criminal justice system and almost 90 percent impunity in crimes against the press all eyes are on the new administration and its efforts to endorse this important pieces of legislation.
Aside from expressing rhetorical support for the work of the beleaguered Mexican press, neither Peña Nieto nor the other presidential candidates brought the grave freedom of expression crisis to center stage during the campaign. Rather, the issue was almost ignored or dodged. But the crisis is deep and requires serious attention. Mexican journalists and free press advocates agree that the situation is intolerable and that the federal government must step in to address it, mostly since the state authorities have a nearly perfect record of failure when it comes to prosecuting journalists’ killers. Mexico is among the countries that helped to launch the widely hailed Open Government Partnership, a global initiative which seeks to increase public accountability through the publication of government data, processes and actions.
It is commendable that Mexico is committed to open government, promoting accountability and citizen participation. But in order for this commitment to be realized in practice, the new president must ensure that journalists are protected from violent reprisal. They cannot be abandoned and left to exist in a bubble of fear and self-censorship.
Carlos Lauría is the Senior Americas Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Reportero, by Bernardo Ruiz, has its national broadcast premiere on Jan. 7 on PBS’s POV series.