This is the first of a series of posts about special protection mechanisms for journalists created by governments in Latin America.
The murder of Mexican photojournalist Rubén Espinosa in Mexico City, where he had fled to from the state of Veracruz seeking refuge out of concern for his life, generated a wave of international outrage over the high level of violence faced by journalists in this country, and for what seems like failure of authorities to protect them.
But violence against journalists is not new to this country. Since 2000, Mexico has been considered the most dangerous country in the Americas to practice journalism, as stated in the report from the joint on-site visit made in 2010 by special rapporteurs for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations (UN).
Also, Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its French acronym) ranks Mexico 148 out of 180 countries on 2015 World Press Freedom Index. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 34 journalists have been murdered since 1992 for reasons related to their journalistic work. Of these cases, 28 have gone unpunished. The CPJ has also recorded 40 cases in which journalists were killed, but motives have not been determined.
It was not a surprise that the creation of a special protection program for journalists was one of the recommendations made by the special rapporteurs to Mexican authorities so the government could fulfill its obligation to protect those at greatest risk.
According to the report ‘Violence against journalists and media workers: Inter-American standards and national practices on prevention, protection and prosecution of perpetrators’, of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, the Inter-American Human Rights Standards establish that “States have an obligation to protect those who face special risk to their fundamental rights.”
In this sense, in countries like Mexico where journalists and media workers are exposed to greater danger than other persons, states must provide them with greater protection. The specialized protection mechanisms have become a good tool to achieve this.
Mexico’s mechanism: looking for efficiency
Mexico was the second country in the region to implement a protection mechanism. The first was established in Colombia.
Despite the involvement of international organizations, Mexican civil society played an essential role not only in the mechanism's creation, but in demanding the government ensure its effectiveness.
“The mechanism was a civil society initiative,” Iván Baez, protection program coordinator of Article 19 office for Mexico and Central America, said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “We were involved since the beginning, but when we saw that [the mechanism] was not working, that people did not get any answers, we stopped presenting cases.”
The first efforts towards creating and implementing the mechanism surfaced at the end of 2010. However, it wasn't until June 2012, following the enactment of the Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, that the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists was formally established.
According to Baez, the mechanism and the law governing it are still too imperfect for several reasons. One of them, he said, is that those responsible for managing the mechanism are not trained to do so – in some cases they do not have the necessary level of awareness about the issue they are working on. He also noted that the financial and human resources are not sufficient for the demand that exists for the mechanism, and that the mechanism does not have the technological capacity for the job.
This situation causes a very late response by the mechanism, according to Baez. On many occasions, the protection measures are granted when journalists no longer feel threatened or when they have left their cities or country. For instance, Article 19 reported that there were 326 attacks on the press in 2014 and “not even 10 percent” of them were treated by the protection mechanism, Baez said.
Considering the current status of the mechanism, the Mexican office of Article 19 decided to offer protection to journalists who do not receive official help from the government. According to Baez, so far this year the organization has been involved in at least 30 cases nationwide. Each case is unique, so the help offered by Article 19 can range from support for a journalist to move safely from one region to another, provision of shelter for up to three months in a place where the journalist’s needs are satisfied, and even the provision of monitoring equipment or special locks on their homes.
This “mini-mechanism” of protection works with the help of four people.
The Mexican state, during a hearing before the IACHR held on March 2014, reported that the mechanism “would [be receiving] hefty budget allocations” and technical assistance from international institutions specializing in freedom of expression, such as Freedom House, according to the 2014 Annual Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur. The State also reported that, up to that point, 238 people had protective measures, but it is not clear how many of those people are journalists.
One of the strongest criticisms Baez makes of the Mexican government is that it has convinced the world that organized crime is the greatest enemy of the press, making violence difficult to control. However, according to figures of Article 19, over 40 percent of attacks on the press are carried out on behalf of public officials, and less than one percent comes from organized crime.
“However this is the speech used [by authorities] so they can shirk responsibility regarding the guarantee of human rights. If organized crime is the perpetrator it is very difficult to control. But we know that the main perpetrator [of the press] is the government,” Baez said.
Another problem the mechanism faces, according to the Office of the Special Rapporteur, is the lack of communication between federal and local institutions. For example, although the mechanism created the Office of the Special Public Prosecutor on Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE for its Spanish acronym), the organization often does not take charge of cases in which journalists are killed because of miscommunication problems.
The mechanism has been publicly criticized not only by journalists who have tried to access the program, but by other organizations, as reported by the Knight Center on October 2014. Such is the distrust in the mechanism, that Rubén Espinosa did not submit his case before the mechanism because “he was skeptical that it could really do something”, Darío Ramírez, director of Article 19 for Mexico and Central America, said to the Knight Center.
It is in this context that Article 19 is convinced that the mechanism needs to be analyzed in depth.
“A serious self-criticism of the mechanism needs to be done,” Baez said. “Ask mechanism operators – who are the ones that know it – and create an appropriate policy. We know that if the mechanism begins to function we are going to see a significant increase in cases filed, and it could be interpreted as an increase in violence. But on the contrary, if it is effective, there is no need to use it again. We have cases of journalists who have come to the mechanism four times. If effective, there would be no place for a new aggression. Only then is it possible to measure the mechanism’s effectiveness over time.”