This past month, four journalists have been killed in Mexico. Last year, at least seven journalists were killed, marking an unprecedented number of deaths of journalists and reporters. Mexico has been consistently named as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists for the third year in the row. With all these killings and violence against journalists, what does this mean for the protection of independent media and press in Mexico?
In order to answer this question, we must first look at why having an independent media and press is important for Mexico. The government’s structure is a federal republic composed of 31 states, where its powers are divided between 3 branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The President of Mexico assumes power through elections, and Mexico has been categorized as a federated democracy with a longstanding history of Presidential power and control . While Mexico may be considered as a democracy by political scientists, it has also been experiencing periods of political instability and corruption . Because of this, Mexico is susceptible to democratic backsliding, which is the government-led erosion of any political institutions that support an existing democracy .
Some of the key tenets of a thriving democracy include having a strong independent media, free press, and support for journalist rights. Unfortunately, with the continuous targeted violence against journalists and lack of government intervention, Mexico is at risk of experiencing the erosion of democratic values. This is further exacerbated by Mexico’s political leaders and judicial courts.
Let’s take a look at Mexico’s most prominent leader, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his actions when interacting with the press. According to Amnesty International, President López Obrador lashes out at national media outlets such as Reforma or international media reporters from The New York Times or El Pais. President López Obrador’s antagonistic behavior towards the press can result in creating an environment that supports “censorship, administrative sanctions, and misuse of the law to intimidate the press.” In fact, Mexico’s President would frequently host weekly segments on the news called “Who’s Who in Lies of the Week” to discredit the authenticity of the press. This is especially concerning when the journalists who were killed were covering issues directly related to government corruption and political topics — many of which focused on the President’s policies and leadership.
Clearly, this demonstrates that Mexico’s political leader, specifically the President, isn’t doing much to help support independent media and instead, is actively denouncing the press. This can directly affect the public’s perception of journalists and generate an environment where violence against journalists is permitted. The continual violent and verbal attacks on journalism indicates that Mexico’s values for independent media — and subsequently, their values for sustaining a democracy — is quickly dissipating.
At this point, it’s critical to note that Mexico’s governmental relationship with the media is different from other countries experiencing democratic erosion. This is because Mexico’s political leaders aren’t necessarily using the press as a weapon to further their own political control. President López Obrador isn’t buying off the press to bolster his approval ratings or generating public support through biased news channels. Rather, he is subtly working to de-legitimize the media and creating an environment where the livelihood of journalists isn’t protected by the government.
This manifests in a stealth form of authoritarianism, where governments work to silence media outlets by suing them for libel or defamation in judicial courts . In 2020, 39 lawsuits were filed against journalists in Mexico, and between the years 2015 and 2019, there were 69 cases of legal actions used to intimidate the press. These lawsuits are powerful for curbing the freedom of the media and press; when reporters are faced with costly libel lawsuits or subjected to criminal prosecution by the Mexican government, they are more inclined to stop publishing critiques on political leaders . This is because journalists and independent media often serve as a “fourth check on government.” They work to promote government transparency, hold politicians accountable for their actions, and provide critical information to the public on policies . By slamming news outlets with these lawsuits in the judicial courts instead of publicly jailing journalists or shutting down news channels, the government stealthily silences the media and erodes the democratic principle of freedom of press.
The result? A “chilling effect” on speech, where independent media outlets become less inclined to speak out on controversial political issues . This “chilling effect” can cause journalists to self-censor their content and become deterred from reporting on issues that may lead to expensive libel lawsuits. So, not only do political leaders such as the President publicly discredit journalists, but the government will also silence reporters by suing them for libel or defamation.
When you put all of this together — the lawsuits, the President’s attitude toward the press, and the lack of protection for journalists by the government — it’s no wonder why journalists are fearful for their lives. The recent deaths of reporters this past month is only indicative of a long-standing, systemic problem in Mexico: the press is neither respected nor protected. This has significant consequences for Mexico’s federated democracy — as one of the symptoms of democratic backsliding as well as stealth authoritarianism is a lack of regard for freedom of the press. The killings of journalists in Mexico are just one piece of a larger picture: the country is experiencing erosions of democratic values, and the independent media and press are at great risk. Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 149.  Ibid, 149.  Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 5-19. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012.  Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1673-715.  Ibid, 1693.  Ibid, 1693-4.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 45.
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