The murder of three media workers made 2004 a dark year for press freedom scarred by increasing violence against journalists by drug cartels in the north of the country. The media is also fighting laws that criminalise press offences.

Journalists working near the US border feared for their lives at the hands of drug barons (see interview). "Only the killers know where they will strike next," says J. Jesús Blancornelas, editor of the weekly Zeta. Smuggling of all kinds is rife along the frontier, many topics cannot be mentioned in the media and drug-lords hold sway through the Tijuana, Gulf and Milenio cartels.

Zeta, published in the northwestern border town of Tijuana, had its third staffer killed in 15 years. Editor Hector Félix Miranda was murdered in 1988, Luis Valero (Blancornelas' bodyguard) in 1997 and journalist Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco was shot dead by hitmen on 22 June 2004 in front of his own children. A co-founder of the paper and a columnist, he had investigated corruption and the Tijuana cartel. In previous months, he had been a member of an Inter American Press Association (IAPA) enquiry into Miranda's death.

The killing of Ortiz Franco, a leading regional press figure, shocked the country's journalists. It was just one example of rising violence against the media during 2004 after several quiet years.

Two other journalists – Francisco Arratia Saldierna, in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas on 31 August, and Gregorio Rodríguez Hernández, a photographer with the daily El Debate in Escuinapa (in the western state of Sinaloa) on 28 November – were also killed because of their work.

One of Arratia Saldierna's presumed killers was arrested, a former policeman turned hitman for the Gulf cartel who reportedly confessed the journalist had been murdered because of his articles about organised crime. A suspect arrested in the case of Rodríguez Hernández said he was killed because he took photos of a former city police chief with a drug-smuggler.

Journalist Roberto Javier Mora García was killed in March and Leodegario Lucas Aguilera vanished in May, but it was not known for sure if their work was the reason.

As violence increased, the country's media moved from anger to action and, for the first time, hundreds demonstrated around the country on 11 October to call for the attackers to be punished. They demanded that federal officials investigate the killings, not provincial ones, who they said were liable to be corrupted or even controlled by the killers.

Mexico has two kinds of press freedom. The size of the national media seems to keep them mostly out of harm's way, while the local and regional media are isolated and vulnerable. More than 30 of the latter were targets during the year of attacks and pressure by organised crime, local politicians and police who still do not accept their criticism, pointing to a serious lack of democracy at local level.

The country's press freedom problems are not just violence. The media also risks criminal prosecution for press offences, as well as attacks on the privacy of journalistic sources (see box). The protesting journalists in October demanded reforms in both these areas. An association called "Ni uno mas" (Not One More) was set up to push the demands. It was sadly not enough to prevent the murder of Rodríguez Hernández in late November.

In 2004...

  • 3 journalists were killed
  • 2 arrested
  • 15 physically attacked
  • 13 threatened
  • 10 ordered to reveal their sources
  • and 7 media attacked or censored

Personal account

Where impunity reigns

Jesús Blancornelas edits the weekly Zeta, for which Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco wrote before being murdered on 22 June 2004. He talks about the lawlessness that grips the northern border city of Tijuana, where drug-traffickers hold sway. Zeta won the Reporters Without Borders – Fondation de France Media Prize in 2004.

Is it dangerous working as a journalist in Tijuana and along the frontier with the United States?

Very. Even when journalists have protection, they can be attacked at any moment. The criminals know when they're going to strike and worst of all they kill journalists in front of their families. That's the most terrible thing.

How is the investigation of Ortiz Franco's murder going?

We've printed the names of those we think ordered it and those who carried it out. So far nobody's disagreed, not even the public prosecutor. But these people are still walking free.

Why does impunity reign in Mexico and especially in Tijuana?

In only one murder of a journalist in Tijuana we don't know who ordered it. For the rest, Zeta's investigations have identified the criminals but they still haven't been arrested. This impunity goes beyond Tijuana. At least three journalists were murdered elsewhere in the country in 2004 because of their work and those responsible still haven't been picked up.

Why aren't they arrested if they're known?

We think there's high-level collaboration between the police and the drug-traffickers, allowing the killers to get away with their crimes.

December 2004

Personal account

How to intimidate journalists

Leonarda Reyes heads the Centre for Journalism and Public Ethics, which is part of a journalists' collective against impunity called "Ni uno más" (Not One More) that also denounces harassment of journalists by police and courts. Reyes talks about attacks on the right to keep sources secret and about criminalising press offences.

The press published details in May 2004 about the killings of women in the northern border city of Ciudad Juárez that worried local justice officials. "The prosecutor is embarrassed and concerned because it's confidential material, some of which he didn't even know about himself, so we want to know who leaked them," said prosecution official José Perea at the time.

The authorities' solution was simply to ask journalists who their sources were. "All those reporting on legal matters learned they were going to be summoned and two of my colleagues were," said Carlos Huerta, of the city's daily paper El Norte.

Protests by those summoned stopped the moves in this case but without a law guaranteeing confidentiality of sources, other officials, especially the police, increasingly summoned journalists to find out their sources. "One judge cited me as a witness in the arrest of two accused drug traffickers," said Huerta. "I didn't turn up and instead wrote to him saying I didn't see the arrests so I couldn't testify. I was fined for not showing up and he said he could physically compel me to do so. Several people came to the paper to see that I paid the fine, but force was never used."

A bill was introduced in the federal parliament to guarantee the right of journalists not to reveal their sources but it was shelved along with other proposals not passed for lack of time or interest or simply because parliament did not want to pass them.

Other attacks on the media included, at the end of the year, the threat of a libel suit against Enrique Romero Vara, who works for several papers, and Juan de Dios Lastra, of the radio station Oye 99.9, both in the southeastern state of Chiapas, for saying the Palenque town government was so in debt that electricity would soon be cut off.

They were verbally insulted by mayor Alfredo Cruz Guzmán and filed a complaint against him for abuse of power. Soon afterwards they learned he had filed a libel suit against them without telling them.

A bill to punish defamation by between three and nine years imprisonment, without possibility of release on bail, was presented to the Chiapas state assembly in January 2004. By comparison, the federal penalty for murder is only between two and seven years.

Journalists, backed by national and international press freedom organisations, protested in vain and the new law came into force in May, since when journalists have been increasingly hounded. "The threats rarely result in prosecution but they make journalists censor themselves," says journalist Isaín Mandujo, who led protests against the law.

Proposals to reduce defamation and insults to civil instead of criminal offences have been presented in several state assemblies but do not seem a priority for officials. Some political parties have even blocked the measures as not tough enough.

December 2004


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