Duarte's "support" of journalists: In Mexico, questions over governor's freedom of expression award

By Daniela Pastrana

On April 2, the governor of the Mexican state of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, received an award from the Mexican Association of Newspaper Editors (AME in Spanish) for his role in "guaranteeing freedom of expression."

However, during Duarte's administration, Veracruz has become one of the ten most dangerous places for the press, according to Reporters Without Borders. The award shocked and angered journalists across the country. Recently, a group of journalists started a Facebook page and the hashtag #ChayoPremio on Twitter to reject the prize. The newspapers Notiver and Diario de Juárez announced that they would leave the AME in protest over the award. 

In the following editorial for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Daniela Pastrana, independent journalist and executive director of the network Journalists on Foot, details the deterioration of freedom of expression in Veracruz in recent years, the inability of Duarte's administration to guarantee protection for journalists, and how journalists have responded to news of the award. 

By Daniela Pastrana

During the last two years, there has been every conceivable type of attack on the press: killed and disappeared journalists, female journalists attacked, attacks on the media, and journalists forced into exile.

Since Dec. 1, 2010, when Javier Duarte was sworn in as the state's governor, there have been nine killed journalists, two more--at least--have gone missing, some 20 journalists have been forced to flee the state and stop reporting because of death threats, one newspaper burned, and almsot every week there is a new attack added to the lists tallied by freedom of expression organizations.

Journalists live in fear and hopelessness.

"It's clear to us that many of these crimes will go unpunished, that their memory will remain sullied, that we will not see justice and impunity will prevail. We have lost hope for a dignified response from the government," said a young journalist in Xalapa.

On April 2, the members of the Mexican Association of Newspaper Editors awarded Governor Duarte an award in recognition for his "support" of freedom of expression, which left media professionals around the country dumbfounded. On Twitter, the award was panned with the hashtag #ChayoPremio.

In the midst of the horror, the government of Veracruz, the third most populated state in the country and one of nine that have not seen any political turnover in eight decades, has tried to improve its image the only way politicians there know how: handing out money to those who say the right things and attacking those who oppose them.

The best example took place a few weeks ago, when Governor Duarte revoked the press credentials of Félix Márquez, a young photographer for the Cuartoscuro news agency, after he photographed a group of self-defense forces in the town of Tlalixcoyan, in the region of Sotavento. At a political event, Duarte defended the accusation of his Interior secretary that the images were faked. "It's the same thing as taking a picture of three people dressed up as Batman, Blue Demon and Wonder Woman," the governor said.

This has been the sign of Javier Duarte's administration, which in September 2011, after jailing two Twitter users for a month for spreading false rumors of attacks on schools, promoted a criminal code reform that would punish people who spread information that "disturbs the peace."

Duarte bought the franchise for the Hay Festival para Xalapa and in 2012 invited famous international journalists. He spent money on "security workshops" and gifts for journalists. But the office of Social Communication maintains control over the media through official advertising and his spokesperson speaks to newsrooms, sets the agenda, [and] demands changes from reporters.

Between May and June 2012, after the killing of four colleagues, a dozen reporters fled the state. It was the second exodus of journalists prompted by the violence and political tension leading up to the presidential election. Duarte's administration offered to pay the expenses of several threatened reporters living outside the state "until the elections pass."

And on June 7, to commemorate the Day of Free Expression the governor announced the creation of the State Commission for the Care and Protection of Journalists at a ceremony where five cars and 10 scholarships for an all-expenses paid trip to Spain to take a course were raffled off, among others.

The Commission was formalized in December 2012 as an "autonomous" entity with a budget of 15 million pesos, approximately $1.2 million. It consists of two academics from Veracruz University who serve as president and executive secretary, and eight commissioned members: five are owners or directors of powerful regional media outlets, two are leaders of organizations with ties to the government and only one, Jorge Morales, is a respected journalist (at least before he joined the board) who has tried to make the organization's finances more transparent. To the anger of many colleagues, he revealed that a mere 5.2 percent of the Commission's budget is allocated for the protection of journalists while the rest goes toward salaries and operation costs.

Journalists in Veracruz have no faith in the "autonomous" entity. Meanwhile, the governor was applauded by the National Commission on Human Rights and honored by the Mexican Association of Newspaper Editors, which is made up of 100 of the most important regional newspaper in the country, including seven from Veracruz: El Dictamen, El Mundo de Córdoba, El Mundo de Orizaba, La Opinión de Poza Rica, Imagen de Veracruz, Notiver and AZ in Xalapa. All of these newspapers have had a journalist threatened, or disappeared, or killed, or forced into exile.

"What do I feel? Anger, indignation and impotence," confided a veteran journalist. How can business leaders lend their support to legitimize an administration that sweeps over the killings of our colleagues to support the notion that there is freedom of expression in Veracruz when there is not? Not only in terms of insecurity, which is no longer reported on in the media, but also over questions of transparency or any other subject, the strategy is to tell newsrooms not to publish about this or that.

For Duarte's administration, the killings of these journalists are solved. The State Attorney General accused the directors of Notiver, Milo Vela and Yolanda Ordaz, of working with the mob, based on an extrajudicial interrogation in which their names were mentioned. The prosecutor accused photojournalists Guillermo Luna, Gabriel Huge and Esteban Rodríguez, all killed on May 3, 2012, of participating in the killings of their colleagues based on a bizarre statement from one of the possible perpetrators (according to the authorities, the man said they killed them because they had killed other journalists).

For the killing of Víctor Manuel Báez Chino, the authorities blamed two people who, according to the official version, were part of a Los Zetas cell. The accused never got a chance to defend themselves from the accusations because they too were killed. In the case of Regina Martínez, the State Attorney General accused an illiterate HIV-positive man who told a judge that he had been tortured into confessing to the crime. Furthermore, from the beginning of the investigation the authorities harassed friends of the journalist with questions about her personal life without any about her reporting.

"Duarte's award, it's a double joke," said a reporter in the city of Veracruz: On the authorities, who don't have the slightest interest in improving the situation and pretend that everything is OK in Veracruz, and on the media owners who instead of offering to improve the salaries of their employees prefer to give awards that only generate more uncertainty among journalists over the impunity in which we live.

Read the full editorial in Spanish here.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Javier Duarte was governor of Tabasco, Mexico. He is governor of the neighboring state of Veracruz.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.