By Michael Lettieri and Cecilia Farfán-Méndez *
Margarito, José Luis, Lourdes, Roberto, Ernesto, Heber. Their murders should not be the reason why we know their names. But this is the tragedy of journalism in Mexico, where less than two months into 2022 Margarito Martínez, José Luis Gamboa, Lourdes Maldonado, Roberto Toledo, Marco Ernesto Islas and Heber López were all assassinated. Six journalists and media professionals, whose deaths add to a horrific tally, and underscore the reality that Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. In response to these perilous working conditions, they have demonstrated under the rallying cry “The Truth Cannot Be Killed by Killing Journalists” (No se mata a la verdad matando periodistas).
Knee-jerk reactions would suggest dangerous work conditions for journalists in Mexico stem from the war on drugs. Journalists, however, have repeatedly stated risks are not exclusive to coverage of organized crime. As pointed out during a series of conversations recently hosted by the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego and the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego, much of the violence journalists experience emerges from a systemic, top-to-bottom intolerance of criticism on the part of political elites that targets them.
Data from the project “Perceptions on Mexican Democratic Institutions: A Survey of Experts and Citizens” by UC San Diego, the Institute for Legal Research at UNAM, SIMO Consulting, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Merced shows the profound damage to democracy that has resulted. A full 30 percent do not believe everyone enjoys the same rights to freedom of speech, and 55 percent of the general population feels that the government puts pressure on unfavorable media outlets.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s daily morning press conferences, popularly known as mañaneras, have also divided the opinion of experts. Of the policy experts, journalists and academics we surveyed, 31 percent think mañaneras are beneficial for Mexican democracy, 48 percent believe they are detrimental, and 21 percent consider them to be neutral. What is clear, though, is that the official effort to shape narratives has only underscored the need for independent journalism.
Journalists are necessary for precisely the reasons that politicians seek to silence them: without media documentation of corruption and abuse, it becomes dramatically more difficult to ever have a full accounting of events—in short, the possibilities for truth and justice begin slipping away. Even if the eventual punishment never fits the crime in cases like that of Javier Duarte, Roberto Sandoval, Humberto Moreira, journalists have helped ensure that we at least know what happened. And that, a historical verdict rendered against forgetting, is something Mexico can’t afford to lose.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc & Michael Lettieri is Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UC San Diego (UCSD) Twitter: @mike_lettieri