Inter Press Service
Mexico City - Journalists are the target of such violence in Mexico that many have been forced to seek refuge in the United States, or to give up their profession. And the outlook at the start of this year is even grimmer for media workers in this country.
One reporter was murdered and another went missing in early January, feeding expectations that violence against journalists in this Latin American country can only get worse in the immediate future.
Valentín Valdés, a journalist for the newspaper Zócalo in the city of Saltillo, 850 kilometres north of Mexico City, in the state of Coahuila, was found dead Jan. 8, the day after he and a colleague, who was later freed, had been kidnapped by persons unknown.
Before he was murdered, Valdés, who covered the local news in Saltillo, wrote an article about the arrest of several drug traffickers in the city. His killers left a message on his body: "This is what will happen to those who don't understand. This message is for everyone."
"Our organisation is extremely concerned about the situation of journalists in Mexico. It is a dramatic situation. The outlook for 2010 is that it will be more violent than 2009; there are no indications that the risks will decrease," Balbina Flores, the representative in Mexico of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told IPS.
The Paris-based international organisation dedicated to promoting press freedom worldwide has monitored the situation of journalists in Mexico particularly closely since violence against them became more acute in the mid-2000s.
José Romero, a news reporter for the radio station Línea Directa, has been missing since Dec. 30, 2009 from the town of Los Mochis in Sinaloa state, 1,400 kilometres north of the capital.
Last year, 13 media professionals were murdered in Mexico, making it the highest-risk country in Latin America for journalists, with a record even worse than civil war-torn Colombia's. Since 2000, 57 journalists have been killed and at least nine more have been forcibly disappeared.
"Violence is going to increase and 2010 is going to be the worst year in the history of Mexican journalism," Armando Prida, head of the non-governmental Foundation for Freedom of Expression (FUNDALEX), told IPS.
President Felipe Calderón of the rightwing National Action Party (PAN) launched an offensive against the drug cartels, deploying thousands of police and army troops soon after he took office in December 2006.
Since then there have been over 15,000 drug-related killings, including 155 casualties among the security forces, according to media counts.
The latest murder of a reporter triggered another wave of outrage at home and abroad, but the government pays little heed to demands for protection and for an end to impunity for the perpetrators, according to journalists' associations.
"We call on the Mexican authorities to deal urgently with this serious matter that affects the work of a free press and causes the practice of self-censorship to avoid retaliation," said Alejandro Aguirre, head of the Miami-based Inter-American Press Association, which links newspaper owners from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression condemned the murder and urged the Mexican state to step up investigations of violence against journalists and to create special protection mechanisms for reporters, especially along the border with the United States.
"Being a journalist in Mexico, and covering news related to drug trafficking, organised crime in general and those who protect them, disguised as public servants, has become a high-risk profession. Reporting is dangerous," wrote Avenida 24, an on-line publication.
This is the second time that Zócalo reporters have been attacked. Rafael Ortiz, who had written several columns on drug trafficking in Coahuila state, disappeared in 2006.
A Special Prosecutor's Office was established that year by the Attorney General's Office to deal with crimes against journalists.
So far it has handled about 100 cases, of which only four were referred to the courts. Organisations working for freedom of expression have concluded that the Special Prosecutor's Office is failing in its duties.
Out of the 13 journalists murdered in 2009, the Mexican authorities say they have suspects in custody in five cases.
Attacks on reporters are not an issue that Mexican society feels strongly about, which makes it difficult to push it higher up the political agenda and achieve stronger measures to protect the work of the media, journalists associations complain.
In September, the newly sworn-in national legislature decided to eliminate a special congressional commission created to follow up on cases of attacks on journalists and the media. However, it eventually reversed the decision because of an escalation of violence against media professionals. The commission is expected to be reinstalled this week.
But the lower house of Congress has still not passed a legal reform putting the Attorney General's Office in charge of investigating complaints of harassment and attacks on the media and journalists. At present, local prosecutors investigate these cases, without the benefit of a national strategy.
"We are going to use every possible means to demand respect for the right to free speech. We need to shout it out: it is everyone's duty to defend freedom of expression," said Prida of FUNDALEX.
According to RSF's records, at least four journalists have fled to the United States for safety since 2008 because of threats, allegedly from cartels that are fighting over drug routes into the lucrative U.S. market.
In December, Ricardo Chávez, a reporter for Radio Cañón in Ciudad Juárez on the U.S. border, crossed over into the United States seeking asylum after two of his nephews were murdered and he received death threats. Days later the U.S. authorities granted him a humanitarian visa.
Ciudad Juárez has become one of the world's most violent spots, according to human rights organisations. The number of drug-related killings in the first few days of 2010 has already topped 100.
In early 2009, Jorge Aguirre, head of the news web site La Polaka in Ciudad Juárez, took refuge in the U.S. after receiving death threats.
Journalists Emilio Gutiérrez, of the newspaper Diario del Noroeste in Sinaloa, and Horacio Nájera, a correspondent in Ciudad Juárez for the Mexico City daily Reforma, also fled across the border in 2008.
"The significant thing is that they are all from the same area" - the northern states of Mexico, said RSF's Flores.
RSF has also received reports that a number of journalists have given up their profession because of violence in the states of Michoacán, Durango, Chihuahua and Sonora, where drug cartels are powerful.
Bereft of protection, reporters have nowhere to turn. "The media and journalists themselves should mobilise the public. Perhaps a bit more pressure on the authorities is needed. The right to freedom of information is being increasingly tightly restricted," Flores concluded.