Renu Mandhane, director of the Faculty of Law's International Human Rights Program (right), visited Mexico as part of a PEN delegation along with former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (centre) and Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of the Writers in Prison

Staff member explores journalistic freedom of expression in Mexico

"The killings continue and impunity reigns"

On Jan. 31, I arrived home from a week in one of Latin America’s truly great capitals: Mexico City.  While there, I had a chance to visit marvelous museums, eat fantastic food and develop a love for “tequila blanco” with a “sangrita” (“little blood”) chaser.  I also had the chance to chat with diplomats, illustrious writers, and a former governor general of Canada. 

However, the real reason I was in Mexico was sobering: Mexico is one of the deadliest places in the world to practice freedom of expression.  Because in the midst of Mexico’s war on drugs, journalists are being caught in the cross-fire.

Since 2000, more than 70 journalists have been killed and 12 have disappeared, with countless more threatened and harassed.  Media outlets as well have been frequently attacked with explosives and firearms. Despite this dire situation, impunity reigns: crimes against freedom of expression are not properly investigated and authorities have failed to successfully prosecute more than 90 percent of cases.  These findings are outlined in last year’s International Human Rights Program-PEN Canada report Corruption, Impunity Silence: The War on Mexico’s Journalists.  The report was written by two U of T IHRP clinic students, Cara Gibbons and Beth Spratt, who travelled to Mexico City in October 2010.  And, despite a lot of hot air from the Mexican government since the report’s publication, the situation remains largely the same.  In the past nine months, four more journalists have been found dead.

Recognizing the dire situation, PEN International sent an unprecedented delegation last month to show solidarity with Mexican journalists, and cast international attention on the issue.  I was honoured to be asked to join the delegation, as the sole lawyer and an expert on the issues.  Along with Jennifer Clement of Mexico PEN, the delegation included John Ralston Saul, PEN president;  former journalist and past Governor
General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson; Russell Banks (author of The Sweet Hereafter), Gillian Slovo (president, UK PEN); and Larry Siems (author of The Torture Report), amongst others.

The mission included two public actions to show solidarity with Mexican journalists. On Jan. 27, an open letter signed by 170 of the world’s leading authors, including Margret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison and others appeared as a full-page ad in El Universal, one of Mexico’s leading papers.  

“We stand with you and all Mexican citizens who are calling out for the killing, the impunity, the intimidation to stop,” the writers declared. “You have an absolute right to life and a guaranteed right to practice your profession without fear.”  The powerful message was reported on countless Spanish-language news sources, as well as by CBS, ABC, The Washington Post, BBC and The Guardian.

On Jan. 29, journalists working in some of the country’s most dangerous cities spoke of their experiences at PEN Protesta!, a remarkable event where frontline reporters stood side-by-side with the PEN delegation and many of Mexico’s most prominent writers to demand an end to the killings. In all, more than 50 writers and journalists read short statements that alternated between harrowing first-hand accounts of deadly threats and declarations of outrage and horror.  In my statement on behalf of the IHRP, I emphasized Mexico’s responsibilities under international law to protect communicators regardless of the source of threats and violence. The protest was covered by local and international media, including CNN and the Los Angeles Times.  I was interviewed by CBS Radio for a feature that will be airing in the coming weeks.

After meeting with our delegation, the U.S. ambassador issued a press release wherein he announced a US$5- million initiative over four years to “provide support for Mexican efforts to strengthen the capacity to protect journalists.”  We also had the opportunity to meet with key public officials including Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City; Gustavo Salas, the special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression; Jose Gonzalez Morfin, president of the Senate; and Alejandro Poiré Romero, minister of the interior.

Without exception, the meetings with Mexican government officials contained the same tired refrains regarding the lack of federal jurisdiction to act, and blame-shifting to the drug cartels. In one particularly memorable exchange, the special prosecutor boasted that he had filed 55 indictments related to crimes against journalists in 2011.  When I proceeded to cross-examine him on the numbers, he admitted that 50 of the indictments were thrown out by federal judges due to lack of jurisdiction and that the remaining five cases have not resulted in convictions.  In this moment, I realized the enormity of the problem: where complete impunity reigns, the violence will not stop.

Still, we did manage to wrest some key “wins” from policy makers. The special prosecutor assured us that his office would interpret  “journalist” broadly to include all communicators, including bloggers and community radio announcers. This was a point of some confusion amongst non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the special prosecutor reiterated this position publicly in a press release issued after our meeting.

The interior minister, arguably the second most powerful man in Mexico after the president and the “face” of the war on drugs, provided us with further details regarding the Committee to Protect Journalists that was set up in 2010. In particular, he provided us with a copy of the procedural guide for accessing the protection mechanism, which thus far NGOs had been unable to access.  The minister also confirmed that there would be significant resources (approximately $2 million) available for the protection of journalists during this calendar year.

Despite these modest wins, there were no assurances received in relation to our main demand: that the government ensure crimes against freedom of expression are investigated, prosecuted, and punished entirely by federal authorities. “Federalization” is essential to ending impunity since state and local authorities are often paid-off by drug cartels such that no prosecutions take place. Though the president of the Senate was repeatedly pressed by the delegation to commit to passing 2009 legislation that would federalize crimes against freedom of expression, he made no promises. It will remain to be seen whether the Calderon government passes this law prior to the federal election this summer.

In the end, while pressure from the international community is much-needed, change will likely only come when the Mexican people themselves demand it.  For our part, the U of T's International Human Rights Program looks forward to continuing to work with PEN International and Mexican NGOs to ensure that this issue remains on the agenda within Mexico and with its major trading partners: Canada, the United States, and the European Union.

Lawyer Renu Mandhane is director of the Faculty of Law's International Human Rights Program.


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