Three journalists were murdered, five were abducted, and dozens were hit with punitive lawsuits, making this the worst year for attacks on the press in Mexico in a decade. While the growing violence is partly indicative of the deteriorating social conditions, it also reflects a positive trend – the growing power and independence of the Mexican media.

Drug trafficking emerged as the primary threat to the press, with one journalist, Benjamín Flores González, murdered in June and another, editor Jesús Blancornelas, badly wounded in a Thanksgiving day attack. Violence against journalists, once largely confined to provincial cities, also invaded the capital city. One journalist was murdered in Mexico City and five others were abducted, apparently by police officials angered by aggressive coverage.

Ironically, the national financial crisis that began in 1995 accelerated the expansion of Mexico's independent press, as the government system that once kept journalists in line through kickbacks, bribes, and state advertising began to break down. As controls have diminished, reporters have begun to probe areas once considered off limits, such as drug trafficking, human rights abuses, and official corruption.

The July 6 mid-term election, during which Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost the mayor's race in Mexico City as well as majority control of the congress (and thereby control of the federal budget), rendered the rules that governed interaction between the press and the government obsolete. During the period of transition, with reporters probing the new limits of press freedom, attacks against journalists are likely to remain commonplace.

Even as violence against the press is growing more common, the threat of legal action is the primary deterrent to effective reporting. Mexico's anachronistic libel law – written in 1917 – defines defamation as a criminal offense punishable by up to 11 months in prison. At least 74 cases have been filed against journalists in Mexico since President Ernesto Zedillo took office in 1994, according to Citizen Cause, a Mexican civic organization.

President Zedillo publicly affirmed his commitment to press freedom at the Inter American Press Association assembly in Guadalajara in October. Nevertheless, authorities have done little to investigate attacks on journalists and punish those responsible. While two gunmen were arrested for the murder of Flores González, little progress has been made in any of the other investigations. Among the outstanding cases is the 1988 assassination of Héctor "El Gato" Félix Miranda, the co-publisher of the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta along with Jesús Blancornelas.

In November, CPJ hosted a one-day conference in Mexico City with 35 top journalists to discuss press freedom and self-defense strategies. (See Mexico special report.)

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.