Around the world, attempts to silence journalists and media outlets are becoming more common than ever — and it’s an easy thing for the public to look the other way on. Even when the stories of journalist intimidation hit the news cycle, they’re usually not graphic or horrifying enough to elicit public outrage.
More often than not, intimidation and silencing occurs in the shadows, away from the public eye, with chilling personal harassment and threats towards members of the media.
But if journalists become silent on reporting the truths they witness and investigate, we all will be left with a black hole of information. As the black hole grows, our freedoms begin to disappear.
In recent years, this issue has become all the more important as journalists worldwide face new threats and waves of violence. And a new list of countries that are suppressing freedom of expression has emerged. We were used to talking about North Korea, China and Iran. Now the list includes Turkey, Egypt, Russia, the Philippines and Mexico.
It wasn’t always that way. Some of these countries had indeed experienced a level of freedom of the press in recent years.
Mexico has become a hotbed for incidents of journalist intimidation and the fight for freedom of the press. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 92 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 1992. Additionally, according to Article 19, a watchdog organization for the protection of freedom of speech, 23 journalists have disappeared since 2003. Marcila Zendejas, a human rights activist formerly with Article 19, told me that 50 percent of attacks on journalists are coming from the government. This makes Mexico one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to do their jobs.
There are two ways to look at this issue. One is to see it as a primarily Mexican, or Turkish or Russian issue — something happening in a far away country, based on their issues, that has nothing to do with us.
The other way to view it is to understand that every incident is part of a larger global attack on press freedom. Like a virus, it’s spreading across the world. As consumers of news, we must pay attention to the signs and patterns closely. Intimidations and attacks on journalists are things we’re seeing more of here in the United States as well.
I’ve lived in countries where I saw firsthand the weakening and erosion of freedom of press. The process happens slowly and subtly. Journalists are often left alone, with serious threats made to their lives, their loved ones and their wellbeing. Publishers are harassed and threatened with financial and political pressure. Eventually the pressure turns more serious — threats of imprisonment or the full destruction of their company. And while it all unravels, little public attention is given the issue … until it is too late. One day, a country wakes up to the majority of their news being government-approved and controlled.
Every incident is part of a larger global attack on press freedom. Like a virus, it’s spreading across the world.
That’s why we went to Mexico for the latest episode of The Zainab Salbi Project. In many instances, journalists have faced major threats for reporting on situations that suggest even the smallest amount of corruption.
Karla Silva, one woman we interviewed, was 23 years old and relatively new to her job when she wrote investigative articles about the lack of services in youth centers and in elderly care centers. The source of the lack of services, she pointed out, stemmed from corrupt spending patterns in Silao, Mexico.
By all means, Silva was just doing her job. She never thought her stories could lead to a major threat to her life. More than that, she was in good terms with the local government officials, attended their events, respected the mayor and his wife and did not think that her work was threatening to them whatsoever.
Everything changed one day when two men were sent to her office. They beat her, punched her, kicked her and screamed at her — and they told her to soften the tone of her articles, or she’d be killed. Thanks to security cameras, the police were able to arrest the two men.
That was not enough for Silva, who insisted that the arrest should be of the person who ordered them to carry out the attack — Silao’s mayor, Enrique Benjamin Solís Arzola. No one believed her at first. She was young. She was a new journalist. And she was accusing a government official of something pretty horrific. It was a small human rights organization that believed her, took her case, and fought over and over until Solís was proven to have ordered the attack.
This was a major victory for journalists in Mexico. But there are hundreds of other journalists who go experience these dangers on a daily basis without support. In the eastern costal state of Veracruz, at least six journalists have been killed since 2010, with the latest killing of Manuel Santiago Torres Congzalez in May of this year.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the killings of Torres and many other journalists have coincided with Governor Janier Duarte de Ochoa taking office in 2010. This is in line with many journalists’ claims regarding the connection between local governments in Mexico and attacks on media members. Many have left Veracruz for safety, but there are those who continue to report from the region, despite having a very real fear for their lives.
Their commitments to their profession is unwavering — so much so that they continue to take risks and do reporting, despite knowing the potential cost.
In the northern states, enough journalists have been killed or kidnapped that it has become a black hole of information. It’s a region left to survive with a deep corruption of power, and with no way for public to become informed or empowered to fight back.
Every media owner, publisher and journalist in Mexico is aware of the problem. Some see it as just a reality. Others, particularly human rights activists and freedom of speech advocates, are doing what they can to raise public awareness on the issue.
This includes support for journalists who have been traumatized. The Mexican federal government has funded safe housing for journalists in Mexico City – though it is limited in its capacity to address the volume of journalists whose lives are in danger.
It is easy to expect this to be an issue of drug cartels and corruption. But according to Anabel Hernandes, a prominent female journalist we spoke with, at least 50 percent of the attacks are triggered by local government officials who are involved in corrupt dealings with the cartels.
When the resistance to any critical thinking comes out of the government, it is even more of a threat to freedom of expression as a principle element of democracy. It is the government, not organized crime rings, that is working hard to suppress freedom of press in so many parts of the world.
The price is paid by all of us if freedom of expression is taken away from any one of us.
Though this piece focuses on Mexico, the issue is a global one. Journalism in many parts of the world is seen as a cool, interesting job to have. And yet in Mexico and many other countries, it is a heroic job, one that tests the individual commitment to freedom of expression to the core, and one that is yet to have public interest in protecting it.
Watchdog groups, human rights groups, and press freedom groups are all important and good to have. But in this time of history, the public and every citizen needs to pay attention to this issue.
After all, the price is paid by all of us if freedom of expression is taken away from any one of us.
Though the cases featured in Mexico show a lot of physical violence, many journalists in Mexico and around the world are simply disappearing and languishing in prison with no due process. Publishers and papers have equally been harassed, leading to many of them to be silent and to succumb to the pressure. Others subtly push back, hoping to retain the freedom they still have.
Understanding what is happening to the press, and supporting them wherever they may be in the world, is of critical importance in this time — more than any time — as tensions rise around the world.