Monday, August 31, 2015
Repression and Death as Journalists do their Jobs in Mexico
By Jos Bartman (openDemocracy)
On July 31, 2015 Mexican photojournalist Rubén
Espinosa was tortured and murdered in a house in Mexico City. His four female companions, including an activist from Veracruz,
were raped, tortured, and also killed. While Veracruz, the city where Espinosa worked, is known to be a hostile environment
for journalists and activists, this is the first time that a journalist from Veracruz has had his safety compromised in the
capital. The slaughter of Espinosa demonstrates not only how dire the situation for journalists in Mexico has become, but
is exemplary of the way in which formally democratic countries, like Mexico, deal with political challengers.
According to Article 19, the international organization
that promotes press freedom, Espinosa is the twelfth journalist from Veracruz to be killed since 2010. In light of that number, Veracruz can call itself the most dangerous state for journalists in Mexico,
and, according to Reporters Without Borders, even one of the most dangerous places in the world.
While clientelism, corruption, and a climate of fear have resulted in the fact that only a limited number of
journalists still write critically about the state government, most people that do engage in critical journalism await the
same fate: a knock on the door by masked men, often followed by torture, rape, and murder, and finally a statement
from the federal chief prosecutor in which he emphasizes that the murder is not necessarily politically driven. In other words,
the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Recently, a team of investigative journalists discovered that the Veracruz state police had kept a secret file on 20 activists regarded as “security risks.” It’s a list of names that shares an important similarity
with the string of victims in Veracruz: people who have openly criticized the state government, and have published about corruption
and repression by that government. It is clear that the recent killings, and those before Espinosa, are politically driven.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, and Civil Rights organizations such as Article 19, recognize this. But policy-makers and commentators around the world continue
to misunderstand the nature of this repression.
Take the minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands, Bert Koenders, for example, who praised the Mexican
government for its international promotion of human rights after his latest diplomatic visit. In a press release, he noted that the Netherlands and Mexico are becoming more alike in their political ambitions. Koenders emphasized that
Mexico wants to take more responsibility for promoting peace and safety in the world – by supporting UN peacekeeping
missions. He described the efforts of the Mexican government to curb international drug problems as “admirable.”
This while numerous journalists who have investigated the links between politicians and drug cartels have been brutally killed.
Koenders’ statement is characteristic of the way in which policy-makers only address the official position of a country
when it comes to human rights, and leave out the empirical position.
Human rights and civil rights organizations are less positive about the Mexican government,
and such organizations have repeatedly tried to put pressure on the government to end the extra-judicial killings of journalists
and activists. This is made difficult given that the state repression of dissidents in Mexico is exercised in a decentralized
fashion. But some of the blame over the misinterpretation of repression must also be directed at non-governmental organizations
themselves. One of the most influential democracy watchdogs, Freedom House, evaluates Mexico as an average performer when it comes to the state of civil rights and political freedom. This is in contrast to countries like China, which does badly on such ratings. The reason why Freedom House is relatively
generous to Mexico is the same reason why the Dutch minister of foreign affairs is so positive about the political ambitions
of the Mexican government: both are essentially saying something about official government policies, not real practices.
The kind of reporting used by Freedom House mainly
targets the legal freedoms people enjoy in a country, such as the right to participate freely in elections or the right to
conduct journalism unhindered. In Mexico, these freedoms are indeed reasonably well protected by the law in comparison to
China. But these measurements do not say much about how countries live up to those legal standards. The consequence of this
is that countries like China, where political opponents are prosecuted according to national law, have worse ratings than
countries where political opponents are tortured and murdered in their own homes.
In countries where politicians do not have the formal means to repress political
opponents, another toolbox of repression is often opened – the execution of repression in collaboration with organized
criminality while federal politicians turn a blind eye.
Any solution must separate political repression in its most essential form from the manifestations of repression,
define repression as a fundamental intolerance to political opposition, and be open to the ways in which this intolerance
can be perceived. If we use these new lenses, we might be able to better understand new and more nebulous forms of repression.
This article, "Mexico's Deadly Truths," by Jos Bartman, was published
on Aug. 25, 2015 at openDemocracy.net, under a Creative Commons license. Jos Bartman is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam Institute
for Social Science Research. He tweets @Jos_Bartman.