Mexican crime reporters risk becoming the story

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Mexico is reeling from another round of brutal murders of journalists. Four journalists and photographers who covered the police beat have been killed in eastern Mexico's crime-ridden state of Veracruz.

There's a new call for the federal government to take measures to protect journalists in a country where more and more reporters censor themselves out of fear.

The ceremony to remember the most recent killings took place last weekend in Mexico City on the steps of the Monument of Independence between statues depicting peace and law.

As the names of murdered journalists were called, the emotional crowd responded: "He shouldn't have died."

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 45 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since 2006. Some press advocacy organizations put the number much higher. They are among the many victims in an organized crime free-for-all that has killed more than 50,000 Mexicans in that time period.

The Latest Killings

Last Thursday, the dismembered bodies of two news photographers, a former photojournalist and another woman were found stuffed in sacks, floating in a canal in the port city of Veracruz in eastern Mexico.

Five days earlier, the body of Regina Martinez, an investigative reporter for the respected newsweekly Proceso, was found in her bathroom, beaten and strangled.

"The thing that characterized her reporting is that Regina gave voice to the vulnerable, to indigenous people and to the oppressed," says a Veracruz-based reporter who fled to Mexico City for his security and asked to remain anonymous.

"The situation of journalism in Veracruz has reached very high levels of fear," he says. "Perhaps it's safer for reporters to become like speaker cabinets that only say what others tell us. And we never investigate."

In fact, this is already the case in many Mexican states where the drug cartel war is raging, particularly where Los Zetas are active. This organized crime group, founded by army deserters, is especially savage against journalists who report unflattering crime news, or who take payoffs from rival cartels.

Attempt To Protect Journalists

With the upsurge in reporter killings, Mexico has attempted to protect journalists. Six years ago, it created a special prosecutor for crimes committed against journalists within the federal attorney general's office. But it's toothless, says journalism advocate Rogelio Hernandez.

"The special prosecutor to investigate the cases of journalists doesn't have a budget, a staff, or the backing of the attorney general, the Interior Ministry or the presidency. It's a game," Hernandez says. "They have demonstrated total inefficiency, ineffectiveness and ignorance."

The Mexican attorney general's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Manuel Clouthier is a congressman from the northwestern state of Sinaloa, where the drug cartels are rampant. He's also a former newspaper publisher who is currently running a quixotic independent campaign for the presidency. He says it's easy to blame the drug cartels for threats against the media, but his experience suggests they are not the main problem.

"The majority of the aggressions against journalists come from those in power, not from organized crime," Clouthier says.

He says that up to 2009, when he was publisher of the Noreste newspaper in Culiacan, Sinaloa, threats and intimidation directed at reporters and his own family came more from politicians in power than from drug traffickers.

Last week, overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Mexican Congress approved a bill that would create urgent measures to protect journalists and human rights defenders. Among other actions, it would create a rapid response team that would move threatened journalists to a safe place within 36 hours.

The bill awaits the president's signature.

Such a law might ease anxiety in Veracruz, where skittish news directors have reportedly ordered their reporters not to attend the funerals of their dead colleagues, fearing more attacks.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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