RSF advocates for protection of journalists and against impunity on international press freedom mission to Mexico

The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Latin America desk, together with representatives of RSF from Colombia and Germany visited Mexico in a two-week international mission in the first half of December. During this mission they sought to enforce RSF’s fight against the impunity regarding crimes against journalists in Mexico and to better understand the various and interdependent influences that shape the desolate working conditions for journalists in the country.

For the third consecutive year, Mexico is the most dangerous country for journalists in the world, with at least seven journalists killed this year. On their international press freedom mission in the country, the RSF delegation met with families of disappeared and murdered journalists, with Mexican authorities, representatives of the UN and EU as well as Mexican journalists, media organizations and partner NGOs.

In the past five years, at least 47 journalists have been killed in Mexico in connection with their journalistic work, 25 alone since president Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December 2018. In 2021 at least seven were killed, as highlighted in RSF’s annual roundup published on December 16th: Benjamín Morales Hernández, Gustavo Sánchez Cabrera, Ricardo López Domínguez, Saúl Tijerina Rentería, Jacinto Romero Flores, Manuel González Reyes and Fredy López Arévalo. Two journalists disappeared, both in the State of Sonora: Jorge Molontzín Centlal and Felipe Romero Chavez. Impunity is close to total: in 95 to 99 percent of journalists’ murders the mastermind goes unpunished, and none of recent years’ cases of disappeared journalists has ever been solved.

The Mexican State must transform declarations of intent into courageous decisions in order to provide a lasting response to ensure a decent and safe working environment for information workers throughout the country. RSF and its partners are working tirelessly in this direction and hope, through the various projects that will be unveiled in the first quarter of 2022, to cooperate effectively with the authorities in order to curb this downward spiral of violence and impunity.”, head of RSF’s Latin America bureau, Emmanuel Colombié, said.

Mexico has been the world’s most dangerous country for journalists for years. They are murdered or they disappear just because they did their job. We will not accept that these crimes go unpunished almost every single time. We stand with these journalists and their families, we go to court with them, we give them psychological support, and we make it clear to the authorities that RSF will continue to fight against impunity. That's why we went to Mexico”, executive director of RSF Germany, Christian Mihr, said.

RSF's mission in Mexico was very important to our country. In our meetings with high-ranking officials who are responsible for the protection and safety of journalists we asked them to focus their attention on the violence that journalists are victims of in this country. They form part of the solution to get out of the crisis we find ourselves in. In order to be heard the presence of RSF, an international NGO that is very well respected in Mexico, was very important to us”, Sara Mendiola, a human rights lawyer and the executive director of RSF’s local partner organization Propuesta Cívica, said.

RSF had scheduled meetings with civil society organizations, journalists and media outlets as well as with the authorities in charge of the protection and defense of journalists: among others, RSF met with the head of the Federal Protection Mechanism, FEADLE (Special Prosecutor's Office for Crimes against Freedom of Expression), the Human Rights Commission of the Senate of the Republic, representatives of the European Union, the OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), UNESCO and the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH).

In a press conference on December 8th and at a round table with the Human Rights Commission of the Mexican Senate on December 9th, RSF presented the preliminary findings of the two projects it is currently implementing in Mexico: “Bajo Riesgo” and “Defending Voices”.

At the same time, the RSF regional office for Latin America, with the support of Unesco, launched an initiative in March 2021 aimed at strengthening the mechanisms for the protection of journalists in Mexico, but also in Colombia, Brazil and Honduras. These countries account for 80 percent of the murders of journalists in Latin America in the last decade. After an extensive process of consultations and interviews with journalists, representatives of the mechanisms and civil society organizations, a detailed report with a diagnosis and recommendations in each of the countries is being finalized. RSF will disseminate it in February 2022. The organization understands the report as an instrument of cooperation with each government so they can meet their obligations regarding the protection of journalists.

In Mexico, RSF has observed a serious deficiency in the number of staff in the mechanism for the protection of journalists. There is an evident work overload, with around 50 officials responsible for nearly 1,500 cases of persons under protection, 470 of which are journalists. A lack of adequate accompaniment and delays in the implementation of protection measures often cost lives. But the mechanism cannot be understood as an isolated gear: it is essential that public protection policies effectively involve governmental bodies and institutions of each state and also the local level.

At RSF’s meeting with the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists within the Interior Ministry (SEGOB) on December 7th the organization was reassured of improvements in the coming year: the 2022 budgets shall be raised to 388 million Pesos, all analysts shall be certified and a national communication campaign (which had already been planned for 2019) shall be launched to raise awareness. RSF will hold the mechanism responsible to meet these promises.

The other project presented, “Defending Voices”, is a RSF Germany’s project in cooperation with Propuesta Cívica, financed by the German Ministry For Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The project aims, first, to change laws and regulatory practices that restrict press freedom, and second to make sure that media professionals who have been victims of crimes and their families receive justice.

During the mission RSF and Propuesta Cívica presented a preliminary version of their analysis of Mexican laws (criminal law, labor law, civil law and laws regarding the protection of journalists) that restrict press freedom, obstruct or criminalize the work of journalists at the federal and state level. The analysis serves as a basis for legislative reform proposals aimed at improving the legal protection of journalists. The proposals will be presented to the Senate in 2022.

The second part of the “Defending Voices” project aims at tackling impunity after murders and forced disappearances of journalists. Propuesta Cívica has compiled and systematized information on the 25 cases of journalists who have disappeared in Mexico since 2003. The cases of Mauricio Estrada Zamora, reporter for the newspaper La Opinión de Apatzingán (disappeared in 2008) and Ramón Ángeles Zalpa, journalist at the Cambio de Michoacán newspaper and also a university professor (disappeared in 2010), both from the State of Michoacán, were selected as exemplary due to the undeniable lack of willingness police and public prosecution show to investigate. Lawsuits were then filed to seek legal remedies available at national level. The organizations provide the families with extensive legal support and are preparing to present the cases to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2022.

In addition to that, representatives of RSF Germany and Mexico met with family members of Mauricio Estrada Zamora and Ramón Ángeles Zalpa in Michoacán as part of their mission in the first week of December.

The week after, RSF representatives went to Veracruz to meet with the family and lawyer of Miguel Ángel López Velasco, also known as Milo Vela. The veteran journalist of the Notiver newspaper was murdered on June 20th, 2011 in the city of Veracruz. His assassination was the prelude to a series of murders of journalists in the State of the same name during the presidency of Javier Duarte. The case was never solved, no hitman or mastermind was ever brought to court.

Together with Free Press Unlimited and the Committee to Protect Journalists, RSF decided to take up the case of Milo Vela to bring it to the so-called People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists, which the three international NGOs organize in collaboration with local press freedom organizations. People’s Tribunals are designed to hold states accountable for violations of international law by building public awareness and generating a legitimate evidence record, and play an important role in empowering victims and recording their stories. The People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists consists of five hearings, taking place from November 2nd 2021 till May 3rd 2022, and will indict the governments of Sri Lanka, Mexico and Syria in three separate case hearings for failing to deliver justice. The hearing on the case of Miguel Ángel López Velasco will take place in Mexico City on March 23rd and 24th 2022.

Mexico is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.