From the Archives: Shooting the Messenger

On March 7, 2013, PEN International advised the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that Mexico’s efforts to reduce impunity for attacks on journalists have been “largely cosmetic” since the previous UPR in 2009.  The statement echoed key findings in Corruption, Impunity, Silence – The War on Mexico’s Journalists which PEN Canada published jointly with the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program/PEN Canada in June 2011. The report noted that while the Mexican government had formally accepted  at least 950 human rights recommendations and signed or ratified more than 20 human rights treaties since 2000, “despite its vociferous support for human rights in international fora such as the United Nations, it has allowed serious rights violations within its own borders to continue with almost complete impunity.”

In October 1991, Alberto Manguel joined a PEN Canada/PEN USA West delegation to investigate alleged human rights abuses committed against Mexican journalists. The group spent a week in Mexico City, interviewing journalists, members of human rights organizations and government officials. The mission’s report was presented at the PEN International Congress in Vienna in October 1991. PEN Canada subsequently urged Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to emphasize human rights issues in Canada-U.S.-Mexico free-trade talks. The following excerpt of Manguel’s report also appeared in the Globe and Mail. 

Shooting the Messenger

To be a journalist in Mexico has become a high-risk occupation. Since 1983, under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), at least 55 journalists have been murdered or “disappeared” – 17 of them during the current administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. It is difficult to determine which journalists were murdered or threatened as a consequence of his or her professional activities. What is certain is that in many cases the journalists in question had criticized a government activity or antagonized an official prior to the attacks.

Mexicans on both ends of the political spectrum say President Salinas seems sincere in his stated intentions to push for democratic reform. While it has no direct powers, his National Commission on Human Rights, established in June 1990, can make recommendations based on its findings. As well, Mr. Salinas has proposed laws, still in draft form, to stem the use of torture to extract confessions and to curtail the impunity that has traditionally been granted to government officials.

For journalist Eduardo Valle, much of the President’s good will comes from a desire to please his government’s economic partners. “With a free-trade agreement looming, it is obvious that the government wants to clean up the image of Mexico. For that very reason it is essential that the human rights question be part of the discussions. Otherwise, you will be trading with a country in which someone’s opinion can be silenced with a gun.”

“It is essential that human rights be part of free-trade discussions. Otherwise, you will be trading with a country in which someone’s opinion can be silenced with a gun” 

Galvanized by international pressure to combat the drug trade, Mexico doubled the number of police officers in the early eighties and armed them with sophisticated weaponry. The re­sult was a brutal, uncontrollable paramilitary army that, though it succeeded in putting some drug lords behind bars, became itself a menace, selling confiscated drugs to the highest bidder (usually the government itself, which then proceeded to destroy the drugs).

When the police force was halved and its weaponry taken away after Mr. Salinas took office in December 1988, many officers turned to the drug lords for employment or formed their own gangs. Against these, too, Mr. Salinas has directed his reform activities.

The vertical system on which Mexico’s society is based allows for abuses of all kinds. “If the President remarks, offhand, that a certain article has displeased him,” says veteran journalist Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, “then some underling, some minor official may decide to please the President by removing the offensive author of the article.” In the provinces, where the hand of the federal government has at times a weak and ineffec­tual reach, this gangster mentality is rampant.

“An outspoken journalist is at the mercy of a venal judge, an eager-to-please policeman, a threatened drug lord. It’s part of our lives,” says writer Amparo Davila. “We’re so accustomed to it that we don’t question it any more.” Mr. Valle, president of the Union of Democratic Journalists, adds: “We used to say there were three untouchable subjects in Mexican journalism: the President, the army and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Now we’ve added to the list drug traffickers and the police.”

Mexicans are beginning to question these abuses. Recently, the fraudulent election of the PRI governor in San Miguel Potosi provoked such anger (men marched to Mexico City in protest, women barred the new governor from his offices), that Mr. Salinas (who had attended the ceremony, thereby lending his support and approval) was obliged to ask for the governor’s resignation.

Throughout the country, human-rights groups are denouncing threats and intimidation. And certain cases – most recently that of murdered journalist Dr. Manuel Oropeza, allegedly tortured by the federal judicial police for a series of articles that accused law-enforcement officers of having links with the drug lords – have received wide publicity.

“We used to say there were three untouchable subjects in Mexican journalism: the President, the army and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Now we’ve added to the list drug traffickers and the police”

Part of the problem lies in the organization of Mexican journalism itself. This is a country of many newspapers – 30 dailies in Mexico City alone. The profusion of publications obviously reduces the readership for each paper, which in any case is very small in proportion to the total population.

In its struggle for survival, the press depends heavily on both the allotment of paper (a government monopoly) and advertising. The government, with the largest advertising budget, distributes its bonanza in a manner that is seen as a reward system for loyalty to the reigning party. In fact, editors of El Financiero, the country’s foremost financial tabloid, known for its criticism of the government, say it was the government’s direct intervention that caused them to lose all their advertising

Furthermore, journalists themselves receive a percentage of the advertising revenue that comes in from their beat: that is, a journalist covering agriculture receives a percentage of the money received from advertising not only by the manufacturers of farm equipment but also – and especially – by the ministry of agriculture. This, coupled with the fact that there is no minimum salary for journalists (who are among the lowest paid occupational groups in the country), makes it very hard preserve an acceptable objectivity. The practice of the embute (or kickback) is also common. Press kits usually contain money, the sum varying according to the importance of the story being covered.

Distribution is another factor that stymies the free flow of news. All printed periodicals are distributed by one agency in private hands but sympathetic to the government). If a magazine appears with an article unfavorable to the government, the agency can tamper with the distribution – perhaps by sending only a few copies to major news vending outlets and many more to weaker ones. Thus, fewer readers will have access to the offending article and there will be large returns, making it seem to the publishers that the Mexican public was uninterested in criticism of the government.

In radio and TV the problems are different. While a few dissenting voices can be heard on radio, programs featuring open debate (such as those of broadcasters Pepe Cardenas, Paco Huerta and Hector Suarez) have been taken off the air with no explanation. Television is largely in the hands of one family loyal to the government (95 per cent of the viewership watches Televisa, a private TV network) and no government criticism is allowed to be broadcast.

A talk show that dealt with drug abuse, unemployment, sexuality and minority issues was taken off the air; its host, Veronica Ortiz, was fired. TV scripts are routinely censored by an official board and news coverage of Mexican affairs is mini­mal. Because the vast majority of Mexicans receive their infor­mation about current events through the electronic media, this has a major dampening effect on freedom of the press.

“Now is the time to be unequivocal. Not even the slightest human rights abuse must be tolerated” 

It is obvious that the government has the ultimate re­sponsibility for denouncing and punishing people who break the laws and abuse human rights. Human rights lawyer Dr. Teresa Jardi worked for a time in the attorney general’s office but resigned because she felt her presence indicated she condoned practices she wanted investigated. Dr. Jardi says simple govern­ment declarations and well-meaning promises are not enough, and that Mr. Salinas must show a stronger hand. “We’re not here to flirt with democracy,” she insists.

During the week of the PEN mission in Mexico, Cana­dian financier Simon Reisman was also in Mexico City, and told a group of Mexican businessmen that “Mexicans should not wait to sort out all their problems before entering the free-trade agreement.” He explained that the problems Canada is experiencing from the deal are the result of delays in the signing. Journalist Jorge Castaneda believes the argument con­tains a remarkable fallacy. “That’s like saying, ‘go marry this fellow, you’ll get to know him later.’ The question of human­ rights abuse in Mexico can’t wait, shouldn’t wait. The Mexican government is more sensitive to criticism in English than in Spanish.” Adds Dr. Jardi: “Now is the time to be unequivocal. Not even the slightest human rights abuse must be tolerated.”

Photocredit: IFEX