MEXICO CITY — In 2011, when Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cardenas was accepting an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, he explained what it means to be a reporter in Mexico: “To do journalism is to walk on an invisible line drawn by the bad guys—who are in drug trafficking and in the government—in a field strewn with explosives.” This May, Valdez was gunned down blocks from the offices of RioDoce, the paper he founded to take on Mexico’s drug cartels. Stories like this are why it was necessary to develop a program of USAID training Mexican journalists to stay safe in impossible conditions. Without journalists exposing the corruption and impunity rampant in Mexican society, there is little hope to better the economy and secure the futures of the 20 million Mexican children currently living in poverty.
Since the beginning of the war on drugs in 2006, Mexico has been one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. In six years, 800 cases ranging from serious threats to assassinations of reporters have been registered with the Mexican government. But of those cases, the government has only been able to make two prosecutions. Of the 117 documented murders of journalists since 2000, the government has pursued eight cases and has solved only one. It is this environment of impunity that has led newspapers to shut down, such as Norte which closed in April after the murder of one of its contributors, Miroslava Breach Velducea.
According to the Mexican government’s own statistics, it is members of the police and government officials who are the worst culprits of violent threats against journalists. Whether for covering up ties to drug cartels or for unrelated government corruption, the chaotic violence of Mexico’s drug war provides an ideal cover for those who would harm journalists.
In response, the government has created the Mechanism for Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. This provides a framework for journalists to report threats and request training, bodyguards, police patrols, self-defense manuals and panic buttons installed on their cell phones for when they feel in danger.
USAID has a $5 million annual budget for contributing to this fund. This is the main resource for training and equipping journalists with the tools they need to be safe. Any murder or crime committed against journalists should automatically be referred to the federal courts that have more resources to prosecute murder cases. USAID training Mexican journalists could be further supported by an inclusive approach to other branches of civil society that create safe environments for good citizenry, such as the 30 civil service organizations that address human rights complaints that USAID currently supports.
Unfortunately, the Mexican government has underfunded this program, making it ineffective and distrusted by some in the media. According to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s own security cabinet, the office is understaffed and lacks basic coordination in the implementation of major parts of the plan. Furthermore, the Special Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression has seen its budget cut in half even though the number of journalists enlisting in the program doubled in 2017. This undermines journalists’ belief that the government is taking the problem of censorship by murder as a serious problem. While USAID training Mexican journalists is a good step, it is not enough. It must be accompanied by USAID led pressure on the government to do more; money alone won’t solve the problem.
The State Department attributes a free press in holding officials accountable and creating a dialogue that is foundational to a more prosperous, stable and secure future. Javier Valdes understood the possible consequences of his investigations, but he also understood the value of the news his investigations produced and put it simply, “Let them kill us all…no to silence.”
– Jared Gilbert