Miami Professor Helps Answer Why Latin American Journalists Are So Threatened

Sep 26, 2016

In June, Mexican freelance reporter Zamira Esther Bautista was gunned down by a group of hit men at her home in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico.

Her killing has yet to be solved; no one has been arrested.

It was the most recent murder of a journalist in Mexico – the eighth there this year. Across Latin America, 23 journalists have been murdered.

That’s a big reason media rights groups this month are urging the U.N. to create a special representative for journalists’ protection.

“Journalists are under threat as never before,” says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which made the U.N. call along with groups like Reporters Without Borders.

Around the world, says Simon, “Record numbers of journalists have been killed, record numbers are in prison…Things are getting worse.”

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Especially in Latin American countries like Mexico.

But getting governments to act takes more than outcry. It requires detailed accounts of violence against journalists – like the disappearance 10 years ago of Mexican reporter Rafael Ortíz, in the northern border state of Coahuila, while he was investigating links between army officers and drug cartels.

“That case had a huge impact on showing me just how bad the safety situation is for journalists in Mexico,” says Marco Lara Klahr, a Mexican freelance journalist and media rights activist.

But just as important is a deeper understanding of why the violence is getting worse – and how to stop it.

Miami is playing a role in that – namely, the University of Miami and journalism professor Sallie Hughes, research lead at UM’s Miami Institute for the Americas.

“This is one of these opportunities where academic research can reach a public forum,” says Hughes.

And high-level ones. In May – at a UNESCO conference in Helsinki, Finland – Hughes presented an innovative report titled, “Dangerous Assignments: How Journalists Stay Alive in Mexico.

Journalists are being disappeared, being killed. Grenade attacks on news outlets...You have what's almost a perfect storm. -Sallie Hughes

Hughes, who once worked as a journalist in Mexico, conducted the study with colleagues there. Over three years, they interviewed 380 Mexican journalists to figure out why they’ve been in such grave danger over the past decade.

“People are being disappeared, being killed – even grenade attacks on news outlets,” says Hughes. As for the causes, she adds: “You have what’s almost a perfect storm.”

Ironically, Hughes says one cause of that tormenta is Mexico’s fledgling democracy – which began 16 years ago and should have been cause for hope.

“It removed the discretionary powers of the President without creating new mechanisms of democratic accountability,” Hughes says. “So the local-level politicians can act with impunity to maintain their power. And journalists can come into conflict with that.”

Especially when those local chieftains – and police and the military – get corrupted by Mexico’s wealthy, powerful and violent drug cartels:

“Journalists began investigating the links of politicians and other power holders and the cartels. But often just reporting there’s a shoot-out puts them in harm’s way. So journalists get targeted more and more...The cartels didn’t want there to be publicity of what was going on. They wanted silence.”

NEWSROOM SPIES

And to assure silence, the cartels and their political, police and military partners are not above planting spies in Mexican newsrooms – especially at media outlets in smaller cities where there is less visibility.

Lara, who co-authored the study with Hughes and the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, says such schemes are common. He’s received threats because of his own investigations – and criminal cops once kidnapped him for two days to scare him.

Sallie Hughes speaking in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2009.
Credit Adriana Gonzalez / Universidad de Guadalajara

He points out that just about all cases of attacks on Mexican journalists – including Ortíz’s 2006 disappearance – are never solved. Hughes says that has a corrosive effect on journalists’ ability to do their jobs. And on democracy.

“For example: self-censorship,” says, Hughes who is also author of the book “Newsrooms in Conflict: Journalism and Democratization in Mexico.”

“Two-thirds of respondents [in the study] said they have self-censored to avoid or lower risk…So if a journalist is murdered while performing their public function, you are attacking democracy.”

Simon at the Committee to Protect Journalists agrees – and says that’s a big reason he’s confident the U.N., which three years ago adopted a resolution to pressure the international community on journalists’ safety, will create the special post for media protection.

“The U.N. knows its development and democratization mission can’t thrive in an atmosphere where the public isn’t well informed,” says Simon.

Simon adds thats Mexico is hardly Latin America’s only dark spot. Honduras is especially bad – and Venezuela now has a rep as a dangerous place for independent journalists.

But he points to a positive trend in Colombia, “including the creation of a protection mechanism whereby journalists who’ve been threatened have the ability to receive protection, relocation, other kinds of support that keeps them safe.”

And as researchers like Hughes keep laying out the realities of violence on journalists, other governments have less excuse not to follow Colombia’s example.