Journalists are being killed in Mexico and they’re taking the country’s democracy with them. The increasing assassination of journalists in Mexico is a sign of liberal democracy backsliding in the country. They are the result of weakened vertical accountability through attacks on civil liberties, rule of law, and media repression.
On the evening of February 10, 2022 Heber Lopez Vasquez was shot to death inside his radio studio in Salina Cruz, Oaxaca. Lopez ran two online news sites covering Oaxaca news. The day before his death, Lopez published a story on his Facebook account accusing local politician Arminda Espinosa Cartas of corrupt re-election efforts.
On March 15, 2022, Armando Linares Lopez was shot and killed inside his home in Zitacuaro, Michoacan. He was the founder of Monitor Michoacan, a news site focused on publishing reports on bribes, fraud, and corruption between the local government and cartels. Before his death Linares received several death threats from cartel members demanding he stop publishing reports accusing municipal and state officials of corruption.
Why are Mexico’s Journalists Being Killed?
Unfortunately, these two cases are not isolated incidents. Mexico was the deadliest country for journalists outside a warzone in 2022, with 13 journalists being assassinated. Since President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office on December 1st of 2018, at least 40 journalists have been killed, making his presidency one of the most dangerous for journalists in recent history.
Knowing for certain the reason for these killings is difficult due to high impunity in Mexico, but it is not an illogical conclusion to say they are directly connected to the journalists’ work.
Prior to being killed, Lopez wrote several stories exposing Espinosa’s corrupt re-election tactics. He accused the politician of attempting to get a construction company working on Salina Cruz’s port breakwater to threaten to fire their workers if they didn’t vote for her re-election.
Linares’ first death threat came from a commander in the Jalisco New Generation Cartel through a call to his cellphone. The commander told Linares his news site needed to stop attacking the local government and the prosecutor’s office or he would face the consequences. Prior to this phone call, Linares published a story on Monitor Michoacan criticizing Zitacuaro’s mayor of being involved with the Jalisco cartel before and while being mayor. He also reported on connections between the prosecutor’s office and the Jalisco cartel.
These two journalists, and others who have been attacked, are targeted for the work they publish and report on. They commit their careers and lives to bringing the truth about the government’s relations and actions to their readers and all Mexicans. Killing journalists is the best way to ensure they stop their investigations and allows the government and cartels they’re exposing to continue working as usual.
Mexico’s weak judiciary almost aids in these attacks. Only about 11% of journalist attacks result in a sentencing. This extreme impunity almost guarantees that those who attack journalists will never face consequences, creating no deterrent for future attacks.
How is This a Sign of Weak Liberal Democracy?
The deaths of Lopez and Linares and all other journalists are a result of weak liberal democracy in Mexico. Zakaria defines a liberal democracy as a government with free and fair elections that has rule of law and protects basic liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. These deaths represent a curtailing of civil liberties, rule of law and media repression.
Journalists who focus their work on exposing crime and corruption in the government are most at risk of having their lives threatened. Huq and Ginsburg consider the ability to criticize leaders and be free from intimidation from officials as necessary rights for a democratic society to persist. In the same vein, Schmitter and Karl agree with Dahl that citizens have a right to express themselves without the risk of facing punishment for their stance on political matters. Mexico’s journalists are being punished at the highest level for their criticisms of the government. Their deaths are an effective way of silencing those who are determined to bring to light the work local governments wish to keep in the dark.
In August of 2023 the police arrested a suspect in Linares’ killing. He was a member of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel; the cartel Linares had previously accused of illegally working with the local government. The case is currently being investigated by the same prosecutor’s office Linares accused of being corrupt. Journalists’ civil liberties are being outright ignored to force them into silence.
As previously mentioned, the impunity assassins in Mexico enjoy prevents actors involved in journalists’ attacks from facing consequences. Lust considers vertical accountability to be necessary to protect democracy as it keeps elected officials responsive to the citizens who elected them. The risk of punishment normally prevents elected politicians from breaking the law and informal norms, but those who attack journalists rarely face punishment for their actions keeping officials unaccountable. While elected politicians are not the ones who pull the trigger, it is believed that they are often the ones who order the attacks.
In Lopez’s case, his killers were arrested immediately after he was shot. One of these men was Espinosa’s brother, the politician he accused of corruption the day before he was killed. Neither Espinosa nor her brother have been convicted for their involvement in Lopez’s death, a result of Mexico’s weak rule of law.
The attacks and risks journalists are facing have left many feeling apprehensive about continuing their work. Dahl considers freedom of the press necessary for a democracy to function well, yet journalists in Mexico are turning to self-censorship to protect themselves.
“You cannot count on the government. Self-censorship is the only thing that will keep you safe,” said Hiram Moreno, a journalist who wrote about drug deals conducted by local crime groups in Oaxaca. This self-censorship has created “silence zones,” areas in which crimes and information about the government go unreported out of fear of retaliation from anyone who may become angry by a report. The attacks and impunity are causing the media to repress themselves for their safety.
What Does This Mean for the Future of Democracy in Mexico?
The death of Mexico’s journalists is a symptom of liberal democracy backsliding. They are a combination of curtailed civil liberties, weakened rule of law, and media repression, all of which serve to strengthen and enforce democracy. Still, some may argue that the death of journalists does not pose a serious threat to Mexico’s democracy because free and fair elections continue to be held. While it is true that the death of journalists does not prevent elections from taking place, the backsliding of liberal rights and the rule of law can turn Mexico into a hybrid regime that is not a healthy democracy. This hybrid regime would be an illiberal electoral democracy, meaning it would hold routine elections for positions of power, but it would offer limited rights and liberties to its citizens. The fact that there are free and fair elections today, despite liberties and rule of law being weakened, does not promise there will be elections tomorrow. We owe it to Mexico’s journalists to acknowledge that democracy is in danger and act to protect it.
54 Journalists and Media Workers Killed in Mexico. (2023). Committee to Protect Journalists. https://cpj.org/data/killed/americas/mexico/?status=Killed&motiveConfirmed%5B%5D=Confirmed&motiveUnconfirmed%5B%5D=Unconfirmed&type%5B%5D=Media+Worker&cc_fips%5B%5D=MX&start_year=2018&end_year=2023&group_by=location
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