by Jasmine Bhatt
Freedom of speech, and especially freedom of the press, has been at the forefront of many political debates as of late as the threat to the West has become a lot more real, and a lot more terrifying. We are used to hearing about the human rights abuses in Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia, but the possibility of it affecting Western Europe has spiked the public’s interest – whether it is for the right reasons or not.
But what about places far from here? What about a place that just procures images of holidays, drugs and, if we’re being honest, Breaking Bad? According to PEN America, “Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for writers,” yet freedom of speech is not something automatically associated with the country.
Since 1 December 2010, eleven journalists have been murdered, four have gone missing, and there have been 132 attacks against the media – in Veracruz alone. Veracruz is just one state out of thirty one, and even within this one state, the results are shocking. Added up, that is 147 reported attacks against freedom of expression in just over four years.
However, unlike many countries that restrict freedom of speech and expression, the restrictions are mainly in connection with the drug cartels. Journalists wanting to report on any aspect of the drug scene in Mexico are immediately putting themselves in danger, with the Guardian stating that
“Many reporters and media organisations are terrified. With increasing frequency, journalists are seeking asylum in the US. Others choose to publish anonymously and many avoid writing about events that could endanger their lives.”
As easy as it would be to blame the restricted press and human rights abuses on the cartels and associated criminals in Mexico, it is perhaps unsurprisingly not so simple. The government, as in most cases, is heavily involved, and it is through the complicity of public figures that the danger is heightened and the threat of death a lot more real. In fact, the most recent journalist to lose his life, Moisés Sánchez, was killed by a former police officer, under the “direct order” of the deputy director of the municipal police in Medellin (Veracruz). Sánchez, a social activist “was known for publishing articles about organised crime violence stemming from drug trafficking, local political corruption, traffic accidents, community concerns, and government mismanagement.” He was threatened by the mayor just three days before he died. It seems that the drug cartels themselves are not what is most dangerous, but the “borders” in which those with political power become involved and the “dirty money becomes clean.” These people have more to lose, and will do more to keep it.
According to the Mexican Constitution, people have “freedom of speech”, and, as of 1917, have had freedom of the press on a similar level to that in the US. But it is not the laws that are the issue. The issue is impunity. The proportion of these crimes that are actually followed up is shockingly small – and more often than not the human rights defenders are criminalised themselves. As long as the attacks on journalists and other media workers continue being discredited they will carry on happening, and no written law will stop this.
Case in point, in 2012 a new law was introduced, increasing the protection of journalists; even offering police protection if deemed necessary. On paper, this is brilliant, and shows great progression for a country that is so afflicted with a history of repressed speech and restricted press.
2013 saw the most violence against journalists since 2007.
Freedom of speech ‘on paper’ is not enough. Sánchez is one of the few victims who may still see justice, but even this is not a certainty. The drug cartels are bad enough, but with governmental and political backing the threat becomes truly terrifying. As long as impunity is still being handed out, and the cases against journalists are still dismissed, the situation will continue deteriorating. Mexico is a beautiful, vibrant and wonderful country, but one that is rapidly regressing in terms of freedom of expression, and we can only hope that at some point, enough will be enough.
Jasmine Bhatt is an English and Related Literature student at the University of York