'Annihilating journalism': Mexican reporters work amid attacks, killings

José Ignacio Santiago Martínez worked early in the morning on Wednesday. As an incident reporter, he had just collected photos and video in a town near San Lucas Yosonicaje, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

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At 2 a.m., a red cab started following the van that was transporting him and suddenly tried to block his path.

“The driver made a maneuver and managed to avoid him, but the men in the taxi carried long guns and started shooting at us,” a frightened Santiago Martínez told Noticias Telemundo. “Luckily we weren’t hurt, but there were a lot of bullets. The escorts told me to throw myself on the floor of the truck and I didn’t raise my head until we were off there.”

The Oaxaca Reporter, director of the outlet News about the digital pensaid he was rescued because he is part of the federal mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders and journalists, which has assigned him four escorts working in two shifts.

“Without the protection I had, I would be part of the unfortunate statistic that we are witnessing,” Santiago Martínez said.

Not all Mexican journalists have had the same luck. From the first weeks of 2022 Three reporters were killed in the country.

In early January, José Luis Gamboa, head of an Internet portal, was fatally stabbed in the state of Veracruz. On January 17th Photojournalist Margarito Martínez was shot in the head in broad daylight in front of his house in a Tijuana neighborhood. Then, six days later, on January 23, reporter Lourdes Maldonado was also murdered outside her home in the same condition.

In the latest Reporters Without Borders annual report, Mexico was once again named the The most dangerous country in the world for journalists – for the third year in a row – due to the killing of at least seven journalists in 2021.

A protester holds photos of three journalists killed – from left: Jose Luis Gamboa Arenas, Lourdes Maldonado and Margarito Martinez – at a demonstration in Queretaro, Mexico on Tuesday.SOPA Images / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

“What Mexico is facing now is the result of the spread of organized crime throughout the territory and corruption in the police forces and prosecutors that violate the rule of law,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexican representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ. “In reality, the Mexican government does not have the capacity to deal with a problem as specific as attacks on press freedom.”

According to various organizations, including the Article 19 group, 148 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000. At least 28 of them died during the tenure of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Article 19 documented 362 attacks or assaults on journalists – one every 12 hours – in Mexico during several months in 2021.

“I will not back down”

“Whenever there is an attack on the media, they have to remove us from our place of origin, and I’ve experienced that before and I’ve suffered from it,” Santiago Martínez said.

It’s not the first time the Oaxacan reporter has been attacked for his work. In 2015 he had two arms broken and two years later he was told he would be killed if he didn’t help spread information for some drug dealers. He was transferred to Mexico City.

Santiago Martínez, 31, said that these incidents, in addition to constant harassment from digital media, have affected his health and that he suffers from severe stress. A little over a month ago he had a heart attack.

“Sometimes it scares me, but I won’t give in because we have to keep reporting. That’s my job,” he said.

The killings of Maldonado, Martínez and Gamboa sparked protests in various cities across the country on Tuesday, with dozens of journalists turning out to demand justice.

“I even fear for my life”

It was a regular morning press conference with López Obrador on March 26, 2019.

Maldonado, a reporter working in Tijuana, Baja California, asked a few questions about trade issues and then took a moment to tell the President that she was seeking justice in a lawsuit against Jaime Bonilla Valadez, a political ally of the President job demanded. because of protection against dismissal and payroll deductions.

Bonilla Valadez was the governor of Baja California between 2019 and 2021 and was the owner of PSN, a regional television network where the reporter used to work.

At the press conference, Maldonado looked at López Obrador and told him: “I even fear for my life.”

On January 23, 669 days after she made her comments at the press conference, she was murdered outside her home in Tijuana.

The reporter received protection from the State Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists because she was attacked in March – a bullet pierced the rear window of her vehicle.

A wake for Mexican journalist Lourdes Maldonado on Wednesday in Tijuana, Mexico.Jorge Duenes / Reuters

However, the January 23 incident happened when the officers who were guarding her had already left her home. According to prosecutors, three men approached her and one shot her.

On January 19, after nine years of industrial action, Maldonado received a positive decision on her claim against the canal. Bonilla Valadez has publicly denied being linked to Maldonado’s death, and López Obrador urged the public not to jump to conclusionsin addition to requiring “a thorough investigation”.

Prior to her assassination, Maldonado had attended a demonstration commemorating photojournalist Margarito Martínez who was killed in Tijuana.

“I am very upset, full of doubts and inner conflicts,” said the journalist at the demonstration. “This case needs urgent investigation. It is necessary to know why Margarito was murdered.”

Two days later, she became part of Mexico’s bloody statistics.

Since 2012, the Mexican government has operated the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which has 1,504 beneficiaries; 493 of them are media and communication professionals.

As with most crimes in Mexico, there is almost total impunity for attacks on journalists. The special prosecutor’s office for crimes against freedom of expression has launched around 3,000 investigations since 2010, but has only come to 22 convictions, according to the Article 19 group.

“The government wants to hold forums to improve the protection mechanism and that is very good, but the demands of the journalistic community are very clear: the most important thing is to fight impunity,” said Itzia Miravete, prevention coordinator at Article 19. “To nothing can change in the violent situation if the perpetrators are not identified and punished.”

When war knocks at the door

About 16 hours after the attack on Santiago Martínez, reporter Alejandro Ortiz found himself in the middle of a shootout in Chilpancingo, Guerrero.

It was just after 6pm and Ortiz had just had dinner with his two children and his wife. As he answered a call, he heard thunderous detonations in Buenavista de la Salud, the municipality where he lives.

“I thought it was a religious celebration. I never thought it was a hail of bullets from a criminal group,” he said.

As he hung up, he saw his wife’s frightened face and realized that war had just broken out outside their house. His family fell to the ground to protect themselves while he called on the authorities and his support networks for help.

When the shooting ended and the suspects had left the area, authorities arrived with police and military personnel.

“There were hundreds of bullets. The noise was deafening and lasted for more than an hour without stopping. My children will never forget it,” he said sadly, recalling that a few years ago another armed group took cameras, a laptop and a truck from them while they were reporting.

“Although you’re prepared for these things to happen at work, you never expect it at home, after work and when you’re already resting,” said Ortiz, who is not protected by authorities.

Stressed and exhausted, the reporter said he could hardly sleep that night. But the next day he wrote a short post on social media about his traumatic experience with the caption “And the bullets kept going.”

“Destroy Journalism”

Reversing the situation of violence against journalists will take years for Hootsen and Miravete, but they said it can be achieved by strengthening protection mechanisms and initiating training processes for authorities to combat impunity for these crimes. In addition, mechanisms to support journalists must be implemented.

“The impact of the violence experienced by the press – both physical and psychosocial and economic – is brutal. Many journalists get sick after being expelled. Some have even died and that needs to be addressed,” Miravete said.

Omar Bello, a displaced journalist from Guerrero, is aware of the consequences of being evicted from his region. He had to leave the beach paradise of Zihuatanejo and move to the gray metropolis of the capital. On August 20, 2017, he received a final threat from drug dealers in his area, and the message was clear: “You either stop misbehaving or we’ll kill you.”

Shortly thereafter, he entered the protection mechanism and now lives in Mexico City.

“You lose everything: family, friends, jobs and most of all your identity, because if you are displaced, you can no longer practice your profession,” he said. “The mechanism only gives you help for food and shelter, but it does not help you return to work. You refrain from criminals crushing journalism.”

Omar Bello during a protest in Mexico City in December 2020.Albinson Linares

In his case, the impossibility to pursue his journalistic work led him to become a human rights activist. In December 2020, Bello and a group of protesters drew blood outside the capital’s interior ministry to protest budget cuts to protections for journalists.

“I endured more than 25 days on a sit-in and they didn’t take care of me,” Bello said. “They didn’t even give me escorts, even though I’m at risk of death. That’s why we stained the entire facade with our blood. My DNA stayed there.”

Santiago Martínez agreed with Bello, saying his experience in the Mexican capital was one of “martyrdom” because he felt trapped and without an opportunity to write about his beloved Oaxaca again.

“They don’t even give you a temporary job,” he said. “They don’t give you any alternatives and lock you up in an emergency shelter. That’s why, despite all the dangers, I decided to return to my place of origin and continue here.”

If you have information about cases of abuse against journalists in Mexico, you can send an e-mail [email protected].

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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