Thursday marked World Press Freedom Day, a UN-declared event meant to underscore the connection between journalism and democracy. It also highlights the very real dangers journalists face reporting the news in the world's hot zones.
These days, one of the worst places to be a journalist is Veracruz, Mexico. There, on World Press Freedom Day, the dismembered bodies of three photojournalists -- Gabriel Huge, Guillermo Luna and Esteban Rodriguez -- were found in a shallow waterway in the Mexican port city. The body of Luna’s girlfriend, Irasema Becerra, was found not far from them. Mexican prosecutors said the victims showed signs of being tortured and that their bodies had been dismembered. The killings were likely committed by organized drug cartels that have terrorized the region for years.
Mexico's raging drug wars have resulted in tens of thousands of killings and kidnappings a year, but journalists are increasingly being specifically targeted. Freedom House notes that sixty journalists have been killed over the past ten years in Mexico.
Mr. Huge and Mr. Luna were evidently killed for the work they did for Notiver, a Mexican newspaper which has covered the drug wars. Fearing the fate that they ultimately met, they had apparently quit the paper. Mr. Rodriguez, for his part, quit his job as a photographer for the local newspaper AZ to work as a welder.
Mexico “continued to be one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists,” according to Freedom House’s annual press freedom survey. The country slid to the “not free” status in Freedom House’s 2010 report, and continues to rank dismally in the survey.
The area around Veracruz has emerged as a key battleground between the Zetas and New Generation cartels. Just last September, 35 bodies were brazenly dumped on a freeway during rush-hour.
While freedom of the press is theoretically enshrined in Mexico’s constitution, the violence against journalists has compelled publishers to do everything from self-censor to attempt to directly engage the cartels.
Since 2010, drug traffickers’ have exerted increasing influence over the news agenda: “A range of techniques was employed, including forcing media outlets to print the traffickers’ press releases as well as threatening and bribing journalists,” according to Freedom House.
In 2010, after an attack on two of their employees, El Diario newspaper printed a front page editorial asking the cartels to clarify what they should and should not publish in order to avoid retribution.
That same year, rival drug gangs demanded media coverage of messages aimed at rivals or the state in return for the safe release of four journalist hostages.
Increasingly Mexicans are blaming their government for failing to end the culture of impunity, and freedom of the press has emerged as a major issue during the country's current presidential campaign. While Mexico has a special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression, the office has so far failed to bring a single case to justice.