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Mexican press tagged 'not free' amid drug war violence, self-censorship

Freedom House, in its annual report released today, says that Mexico is facing one of the world’s most radical declines in press freedom. A media pact to not publish grisly photos complicates the situation.

By Staff writer / May 2, 2011

A federal police officer stands near weapons found inside a concealed room in the basement of a home after a raid in Ciudad Juarez April 29. Federal police seized weapons of different calibers, grenades, RPGs, ammunition and police uniforms, according to local media.

Gael Gonzalez/Reuters

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Mexico City

The homepage of the independent “Narco Blog” is updated several times a day, with photos of cadavers floating in water and bullet-riddled windshields.

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Entries garner hundreds of comments, some of them Mexicans disgusted with drug-related violence that has claimed more than 36,000 lives since late 2006, others sympathizing with one group or the other.

These images and messages, once the staple of Mexican newspapers and nightly news, are becoming increasingly rare. In March, major media outlets signed a pact that, among other things, promises to de-glorify drug trafficking by refusing to print or air grisly photos and menacing messages.

Press Freedom Index 2010: Top 10 worst countries

In a culture where children role-play as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted fugitive, and where telenovelas, folk songs called narcocorridos, video games, and even a new opera are based on drug exploits, some call the move a noble one. But it also raises questions about censorship as press freedom has declined sharply in Mexico.

Freedom House, in its annual report released today, says that Mexico is facing one of the world’s most radical declines in press freedom, as journalists are killed and intimidated and newspapers are forced to publish press releases from criminal groups as if they were pure news. Navigating the drug conflict in Mexico has dogged every institution, from the presidency to the local police, and it is proving no less complicated for journalists and media outlets across the nation.

“If the pact leads to fewer journalists being killed, that would probably improve the situation,” says Karin Karlekar, the managing editor of Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Survey. “On the other hand, a codification of self-censorship will also make the situation worse. … It could be a situation where violence goes down but levels of self-censorship go up.”

Press 'not free' amid drug violence

Press freedom took a dramatic slide in Mexico this year, which moved from being designated “partly free” for years to “not free” – joining Cuba, Venezuela, and Honduras as the only Latin American nations without a free or partly free press. While structural problems, like concentrated media control especially in the broadcast industry, has contributed to its low rating, it is the intimidation and bribery of drug traffickers that drove it downwards.

More than 60 Mexican journalists have been killed in the past decade, 10 of them last year. Mexican news outlets have been struck with grenades and fired at indiscriminately. And while drug traffickers over the years have muzzled reporters, who decline to put bylines on their work or refuse to cover incidents altogether – some reporters have even fled to the US seeking asylum – Freedom House says that in 2010 groups intensified their methods, using the media as a soapbox, including forcing outlets to print their views as if they were official news.

In Durango state, for example, drug gangs held journalists hostage this summer until their outlets aired sufficient coverage of messages aimed at their rivals.

The insecurity has given rise to unprecedented moves by the media. Last September, after a photographer of the local newspaper El Diario in Ciudad Juárez was killed, the paper ran a front-page letter addressed to drug groups asking them what they should or should not publish so that employees are not attacked.

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