Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets have played a critical role in the self-imposed media blackout across parts of Mexico, but now their users could be intimidated as well.
Social media has helped to fill in the gaps when reporters stay silent in Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries for journalists fearful of repercussions from drug gangs.
But now even those outlets might soon be muzzled. This week, two residents in northeastern Nuevo Laredo were reportedly found hanging from a bridge with a note attached to them that threatens others who use social media to report crime.
"That will happen to all of them," read the message. It was accompanied with a letter “Z,” apparently a message from the Zetas.
This is bad news for free speech in Mexico, where a self-imposed media blackout is the norm in large swaths of the country. Reporters see things, but dare not write about them. In the most recent case, two female media workers were killed in Mexico City, prompting a march of 500 industry workers to demand proper investigations.
This year, Freedom House in its annual Freedom of the Press Survey showed that Mexico took among the biggest slides in press freedoms. At the time I talked to Karin Karlekar, the managing editor of the survey. She said that social media’s influence had risen as reporters from the mainstream media refused to cover the stories they were seeing.
In that news void, citizens often rely on Twitter and Facebook to get the latest information. This reliance was recently underscored when two residents of Veracruz spread false rumors of what they believed to be an attack on a school, causing panic in the city. They were later arrested and accused of “terrorism.” (In a bizarre twist, reported by the Los Angeles Times, now the state wants to create a new law and charge the two retroactively so that they face lesser charges.)
On another occasion, rumors, again false, spread in the once tranquil town of Cuernavaca about planned shootouts on a Friday night. The city became a virtual ghost town.
It is easy to spread false information on sites that are not regulated and that are, in many cases, anonymous. But social media plays a critical role in the context of today’s violence in Mexico. Ms. Karlekar had said in our earlier interview that social media was not under threat as the mainstream media was, but she warned that that could change as they become more influential.
Has that turning point arrived?