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Relatives of Mexican journalist Armando Linares mourn during his funeral in Zitacuaro, Michoacan State, Mexico on March 16.ENRIQUE CASTRO/AFP/Getty Images

Mexican journalist Armando Linares fought back tears as he described the powerlessness of the press to protect itself in a region rife with drug cartel activity.

In an emotional Facebook video posted earlier this year, he announced the killing of a collaborator, Roberto Toledo, who was shot dead in January in the garage of a law office in the western state of Michoacan. The slaying, he said, followed threats made against Monitor Michoacan, a publication Mr. Linares worked for that had been digging into local corruption.

“We don’t carry weapons. Our only defence is a pen, a pencil and a notebook,” Mr. Linares said in the video. “There are names and we know where all this comes from.”

Mr. Linares was killed six weeks later, as gunmen shot him at home in front of his family. Journalists covering his funeral were run off by thugs. Monitor Michoacan subsequently suspended its operations.

Mexico has long been the most murderous country in the hemisphere for news media workers. A confluence of rampant drug cartel violence, political corruption and near total impunity – few crimes committed against journalists are prosecuted or punished – has turned the country into a cemetery for journalists.

Eight Mexican journalists have been murdered in 2022 so far – nearly matching the nine murders in 2021, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s the highest total for any country outside a war zone.

“Tolerating violence against journalists is what generates and permits this violence against journalists to continue,” said Diego Petersen Farah, a columnist with the Guadalajara newspaper El Informador. “It is relatively cheap to kill a journalist in many parts of Mexico, knowing that there are no consequences.”

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has compounded the misery for journalists. He has offered condolences and expressed solidarity after the slayings of news media workers. But he has also cast himself as a victim, calling the widespread outrage over such killings an “insincere” attack on his administration.

“Of course our adversaries take advantage of anything to attack us,” Mr. Lopez Obrador said in January after the murder of Tijuana journalist Lourdes Maldonado – the second slaying of a journalist in the border city in less than two weeks.

Mr. Lopez Obrador later blamed the lingering legacy of neoliberalism in Mexico for the violence. He excoriated the European Parliament after it passed a resolution expressing concern over the slayings of journalists in the country.

“It is regrettable that you would join like sheep to the reactionary and coup-plotting strategy of the corrupt group that opposes the Fourth Transformation,” Mr. Lopez Obrador wrote, referring to his government’s branding.

He has also targeted journalists investigating his government and family. He used his daily press conference to spread what was purportedly private financial information on the journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, whose outlet, Latinus, exposed one of the President’s sons residing in a Houston luxury home owned by a senior executive with a contractor of the state-run oil company Pemex. (The President’s son, Jose Ramon Lopez Beltran, has denied any wrongdoing.)

AMLO – as the President is known – promised attacks on journalists would stop with his taking power in December, 2018. But attacks have increased 85 per cent, according to press freedom organization Article 19.

Observers say he fundamentally misunderstood the matter. AMLO speaks of the state no longer persecuting journalists, but he ignores “the responsibility of the state to prosecute and punish those who do attack and kill journalists,” said Javier Garza, a journalist in the northern city of Torreon.

Mexican press-freedom advocates describe a complex reality of “narco-politics,” the intersection of drug cartel control and state authority, with the line between the two blurring in many parts of the country. This creates zones of silence as cartels intimidate journalists and news media outlets don’t know what material is safe to publish.

Monitor Michoacan covered a zone of silence in western Michoacan State, an area rife with violence as drug cartels and criminal groups muscle in on activities such as illegal logging. The outlet focused on police issues and often arrived first on the scene of breaking stories, broadcasting live on social media. But like many other media outlets in the region, it steered clear of covering the cartels directly.

Advocates wonder aloud whether AMLO’s verbal attacks on the news media lead to physical attacks, and say local politicians are mimicking his belligerence by picking fights with reporters in scrums and press conferences. The President holds a two-hour press conference every morning, in which he trolls his political opponents and fields softballs from “YouTubers” – friendly reporters livestreaming the event.

He does take some tough questions – but the reporters who ask them are subsequently besieged by AMLO’s partisans on social media. The President also includes a weekly segment known as “Who is Who in Lies,” which aims to point out press mistakes, though often errs in the process.

“It’s a gathering where they hunt down journalists and activists and everybody telling the truth that bothers this man,” said Gildo Garza, a journalist forced to flee northern Tamaulipas State in 2017 after being threatened by Los Zetas, a notoriously violent drug cartel.

He’s openly hostile with the press. The others were more discreet, more hypocritical,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a journalism professor in Mexico City, referencing former presidents. “They didn’t like the press, but they realized they had to reckon with it. AMLO just hates the press and wants to do away with it.”

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