Mexico, Colombia and Brazil lead in impunity in the killings of journalists

By Christina Noriega

Impunity in the murder of journalists is not new in Latin America. In the last decade, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported 72 instances of journalists killed for their work. About 78 percent of these cases faced complete or partial impunity. But in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, levels of impunity have surpassed those of any other Latin American country, according to CPJ’s 2014 Global Impunity Index.

Violence against journalists and the subsequent absence of justice for victims has set into motion a cycle of impunity, said Carlos Lauria, CPJ’s Senior Americas Program Coordinator, in an interview with the Knight Center.

Note: When tallying the number of impunity cases in each country, we included cases of partial and complete impunity in the same number count while leaving out cases of dangerous assignments, to which CPJ does not determine impunity. Dangerous assignment is a term CPJ uses to classify deaths that happened during a violent demonstration or some type of clash between two groups. For the suspected source of fire category, we included the top source(s) out of all the cases.

1) Mexico

Number of journalists killed: 22

Number of cases of impunity: 19 (3 dangerous assignments)

Most common beats covered: Crime, Corruption

Suspected Source of Fire: Criminal Groups

In Mexico, widespread corruption among law enforcement, the judiciary and the political system factor into the prevalence of violence against journalists, said Lauria. Oftentimes, organized crime has infiltrated the local authorities making fair and thorough investigations into killings of journalists close to impossible.

In 17 out of the 22 cases of journalists killed in the last decade in Mexico, the perpetrators of the crime have walked free. Due to the high levels of violence and intimidation, investigators pushing for convictions face the same dangers as reporters in these cases.

“The use of violence to intimidate and harass anyone who stands in the way of impunity is also in play,” Lauria said.

The recent murder of Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz points to the problem of impunity in killings of journalists. When Jimenez was killed shortly after reporting a stabbing inside a local bar said to be aligned with the Zetas drug cartel, the authorities sent out a statement dismissing allegations that Jimenez had been killed for his crime reports. After local journalists questioned the authorities’ statement, the state spokeswoman and state attorney general both backtracked on the issue and later resigned.

In 2012, the Mexican government approved a constitutional amendment making attacks against a journalist a federal crime, which would allow federal authorities to intervene in local cases. The amendment, a suggested piece of legislation from CPJ, was passed to address impunity caused by city and state corruption.

“This is important in elevating the cost of killing a journalist,” Laurie said.

He added there is still a need for the Peña Nieto administration to show political will in following up with these cases and bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.

“That’s what we would like to see, “ Lauria said. “Unfortunately, the cycle of impunity has not been broken yet. Most of these cases still remain unsolved and it’s really a situation that’s aggravating the problem.”

2) Colombia

Number of journalists killed: 8

Number of cases of impunity: 7 (1 dangerous assignment)

Most common beats covered: Corruption, Politics

Suspected Source of Fire: Paramilitary Groups, Unknown

Despite the demobilization of Colombian paramilitary groups in 2003 and the ongoing peace process between the federal government and the guerrillas, the threat of violence against journalists continues to challenge an open exchange of information in Colombia.

Colombia’s ranking on CPJ’s Global Impunity Index has fallen from No. 5 to No. 8 this year due to a decline in the number of journalists killed. The report stated the decline stems from an increase in self-censorship among journalists rather than a decrease in impunity.

“There is a correlation between less journalists killed and the fact that journalists are self-censoring themselves especially in areas where there’s still control of illegal arms actors, guerrillas or paramilitaries or corrupted officials,” Lauria said. “And that has been the case. We have documented that situation very well. “

Despite the decline in killings of journalists, the threat of violence is still a problem. In September, neo-paramilitary groups openly threatened 10 journalists who had reported on crime and violence.

Successful prosecution of criminal perpetrators is still a challenge largely in part to overburdened courts, a poor network of information, missing evidence and corruption in judicial courts.

According to Lauria, freedom of expression advocates pressured the government to take action against impunity after the death of dozens of journalists with complete impunity. In response, the Colombian government extended their federal protection program to include journalists, which Lauria said is a model for the world, and has prevented deadly attacks against journalists.

“This doesn’t mean that the work has finished,” Lauria said. “This is something that still needs to be followed and there’s a lot more to be done in terms of overcoming efficiencies of judicial systems that are both overburdened and dysfunctional.”

Critics have said government protection has not done enough to end death threats and violence against journalists.

“The government must go beyond providing protection and take systematic action against impunity in order to guarantee the safety of journalists,” said Camille Soulier, head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk.

3) Brazil

Number of journalists killed: 16

Number of cases of impunity: 12 (2 dangerous assignments)

Most common beats covered: Corruption, Crime, Politics

Suspected Source of Fire: Government Officials, Criminal Groups

In the last year, three perpetrators were convicted for the murders of journalists, which Lauria said is more than any other country in a single year over the last decade. Lauria said it was important to highlight the efforts from the Brazilian government to address impunity, though the number of attacks against journalists remains high.

“Although the work of the justice system is still slow and the violence is still unacceptably high, this has been remarkable in terms of some of the things that have been done to fight against impunity,” Lauria said.

In 2013, a court convicted the mastermind behind the 2002 murder of Domingos Sávio Brandão Lima Júnior. Lauria said convictions are hard to win. In the rare occasions a conviction is obtained, the perpetrators of the crime and not the masterminds behind the assassination are sent to jail.

Despite the high number of convictions in 2013, the assassination of journalists continued. During the same year, three journalists were killed for their work.

This year Lauria said CPJ met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, whose three-year administration has seen the death of ten journalists.

“We examined this issue of violence and impunity and we got some commitments from the Brazilian president and obviously we are going to follow up now that she has been re-elected,” Lauria said.

Lauria said Rousseff pledged to extend protection programs for human rights defenders to include journalists, though there is not a timeline for its implementation. Similar to Colombia’s protection program, this initiative would relocate journalists facing threats and assign them police protection.

Rousseff has also pledged to pass legislation that would allow federal authorities to intervene in local cases. Corruption in judicial courts has halted investigations into killings.

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.