Last week, members of a Mexican drug cartel slew yet another journalist for attempting to serve her community. Maria Elizabeth Macias' mutilated remains were found beside a note apparently written by the Zetas cartel in which they claimed revenge for her online exposes and criticism. Her “crime” was posting articles that would help her fellow Mexican citizens understand the dark underworld of organized crime in Mexico.
Mexico is one of several danger zones where the powerful attempt to silence journalists like Macias, who are doing their jobs. In the period of 2009-2010, some 120 journalists were killed on the job worldwide, usually while attempting to expose corruption, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Another 145 journalists are imprisoned and more than 450 live in exile for fear of being persecuted or killed.
But Mexico has become one of the most deadly places for journalists, particularly those committed to digging deeper into the organized crime that is destabilizing parts of Mexico. Just this year alone, some ten journalists have been killed in Mexico and more than 30 since President Calderon began his term, says CPJ. (Other organizations report higher numbers.)
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But what makes Mexico even more disturbing is that it comes on the heels of a long journalistic and political struggle. Journalists struggled to earn their independence from the patronage system and in the process they profoundly altered the long-corrupt political system that had been dictated by the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). For decades, the PRI government had controlled mass media content through lucrative business deals, privileges, subsidies, concessions and bribes that captured media professionals and ensured the PRI's positive image. That capture and positive image ensured its political dominance. For more than seven decades, through co-optation, selective repression and electoral tricks, PRI ruled over Mexico. It held the presidency, all 31 governorships and controlled the national Congress. At the end of each term, the outgoing president chose his successor, after which Mexico staged an “election.”
The system began to falter in the 1970s when journalists such as Julio Scherer Garcia and his contemporaries began to expose the previously hidden dark underbelly of inequities and injustices. But journalism was still a risky enterprise. During the 1980s, roughly 21 journalists were killed. (“Jonathan Alter, Joseph Contreras and Jessica Kreimerman, “Reporters under the Gun,” Newsweek, November 17, 1986.) Ivan Menendez Macin was found in the trunk of his Chevrolet Nova, riddled with bullets. El Popular's publisher Ernesto Flores and columnist Norma Moreno suffered a “gangster-style” double killing, and Excelsior columnist Manuel Buendia's exposés cost him his life.
After a series of events – the 1985 earthquake, a gas leak in a government plant that reduced swaths of Guadalajara to rubble and the Zapatista uprising journalists increasingly saw, and exposed, the PRI's inability to govern honestly and effectively. As independent, civic journalism grew, the citizens followed, expressing their discontent through the ballot box. First, voters ousted local public officials who had failed them. Finally, in the year 2000, they ousted the PRI from the presidency. It was the first time since 1929 that a non-PRI candidate could even fathom winning the office. It certainly didn't fix all of Mexico's problems nor its elections process. But journalists had set a new tone for what was no longer acceptable and established their rightful place as the informants to Mexico's polity.
Today, just over a decade after journalists asserted their vital role in the political system, reversing the long-established patronage system, Mexico's institution of journalism faces the threat of being completely silenced. The chilling effect of the gruesome deaths is enabling the darkest elements of humanity to fester and destroy lives and communities. And to make matters even worse, as this way of life continues without the work of ethical journalists and political leaders disseminating the political realities, potential solutions and the norms that refuse to tolerate these dynamics, what was once considered unacceptable can become accepted as “just the way things are.”
As Mexico's neighbor, clearly the US needs to address its own roles and vulnerabilities. But as an international community, there is a bigger issue – protecting the institution of journalism, which, when done well, keeps us informed and holds up a high standard of integrity. Throughout history, when journalists have done their jobs well, important political transformations have occurred, of which Mexico is just one example. We, as an international community, must find a way to ensure journalists can do their jobs without risking their lives, freedoms or livelihoods.