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.

Gael Gonzalez/Reuters
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.

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

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.

And while many outlets have their own codes of ethics, an outright ban like the one signed by major Mexican outlets in March is considered rare. There have been a handful of other cases. Afghanistan’s government sought to ban the media from covering violence to not incite more ahead of the 2009 presidential election. The Honduran government and newspapers reportedly agreed to limit publication of violent photos this year. And Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez placed a ban last year on publishing violent photos in newspapers – a controversial move that critics say was politically motivated.

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Why Mexican media censors itself

Although the pact in Mexico was made among the media, it has drawn similar criticism – in particular that it essentially plays a public relations role for the government by downplaying the violence afflicting the country. And some of the most influential papers in the country, including Proceso magazine and the daily Reforma, refused to join.

Among the pact’s stated goals are to put the violence in perspective with that of other countries, keep journalists safe, and not unwittingly become propaganda tools for drug traffickers, who should not, they say, be treated as either “heroes” or “victims.”

Lucila Vargas, a professor of international communications at the University of North Carolina, says that as long as outlets are restricting themselves, as opposed to a government clampdown, a limit to violent depictions is appropriate.

“I am extremely concerned about the general culture of violence and how the representation of violence contributes to the environment,” she says. “[The media can offer] complete reports but they do not have to be full of blood.”

Press freedom falls worldwide

Mexican reporters are not alone in questioning how to cover violence and stay safe. Honduras also became “not free” this year, after the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in 2009 led to attacks blamed on both sides of the political spectrum against journalists, with six killed in March alone. Ecuador and Bolivia also fell on the Freedom House report as those governments tightened control over the media.

Overall, the number of people worldwide with access to free and independent media declined to its lowest level in over a decade, Freedom House says, in large part because of declines in populous countries such as Mexico, Egypt, and Thailand. The bright news is that after eight years of continuous decline of press freedom, 2010 saw a global leveling off.

Here in Mexico, as the traditional media steers clear of drug-related violence, because they are either intimidated or bribed or following new codes of conduct, social media is thriving, with sites such as the “Narco Blog,” run by an anonymous blogger, drawing thousands of readers who otherwise would be facing a media blackout, especially in the most troubled parts of the country.

So far, social media has not faced threats like those against the traditional media, says Ms. Karlekar, but that could change as they become more influential.

Press Freedom Index 2010: Top 10 worst countries

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