Latin American Network Initiative

LANI Newsletter – Being a Journalist in Latin America

As Mexican media workers tirelessly say, "no se mata la verdad matando periodistas": "truth cannot be killed by killing journalists".

By Luciana Markstein

Margarito Martinez was just making a quick stop at home after finishing a coverage. He was about to go out again to cover another event when an unidentified subject fired at him several times before fleeing the scene. Margarito died minutes after the ambush, before he could even be taken to the hospital.

Alfonso Margarito Martínez Esquivel was an experienced graphic journalist in the northern Mexican city of Tijuana. He was an independent journalist who specialised in photographing crime scenes. Martinez was working under the protection mechanism for journalists from Baja California, and additional protection measures were under consideration after receiving threats from a former police officer. However, this wasn’t enough to protect him from the dangers of being a journalist in Mexico.

But this is not only a Mexican problem. It is a Latin American problem.

Martinez’s case is only one in a long list of attacks and assassinations on journalists in Mexico. But Mexico is not the only country in which similar cases have taken place. According to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Latin America was the deadliest region for journalists in 2022. Of the 67 journalists and media workers that were killed worldwide, 30 were killed in Latin America. The report also showed that journalists covering crime, corruption, gang violence, and the environment were the most at risk. Being a journalist in Latin America is equally or more dangerous than covering a conventional war.

Journalists are also at risk of disappearing and being imprisoned for their reporting. Data from the Reports Without Borders Barometer shows that in 2022, 27 journalists disappeared, while nine were imprisoned.

This variation in the crimes committed against journalists and the free press in different Latin American countries also shows the contrasting roles governments take as perpetrators or accomplices. In countries where journalists are imprisoned, such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, the attack on the free press comes from the government itself, as one additional element that concurs with the description of them as authoritarian.

But in cases where violence against journalists comes from cartels, crime groups, or illegal businesses, like in Mexico or Brazil, the government becomes an accomplice. Protecting journalists and ensuring justice is essential to ensuring there can be a free and independent press, a pivotal element of democracy. However, when impunity is the norm rather than the exception, the government is equally to blame. An extreme example of this was the murder of Lourdes Maldonado Lopez in Mexico, a renowned journalist who came before the President asking for “support, help, and justice” as she feared for her life. She was shot and killed inside a vehicle two years after that speech.

While the spread of social media and other technologies has allowed journalists and other activists to share information faster, reach broader audiences, and escape infrastructure limitations, technology has also become a tool governments use to attack them.

In El Salvador, around 35 journalists and civil society figures, mostly working for the digital independent newspaper El Faro, became the victims of a large-scale spyware attack. The software used, Pegasus, is only sold to governments, pointing directly to Bukele’s administration. This is not a surprise, given that since his rise to power, the press has been under constant attack. More concerning is the recently approved reform to the criminal code at the beginning of this year, which could lead to up to 15 years in prison for journalists who report on any gang violence activity.

In an even more extended fashion, the authoritarian government in Venezuela and the largest mobile provider in the country collaborated to tap over 1.5 million people’s phones. Many of these were from journalists who continuously faced threats to their lives and their families, turning to exile as the only way to be safe. Along with the monitoring, many media outlets’ web pages have been blocked under the argument that they had been violating the 2017 Law Against Hatred, which technically criminalises the promotion of “fascism, hatred, and intolerance” but has been used to prosecute dissidents.

On May 3rd, we celebrated another World Press Freedom Day, a date to raise awareness of the importance of press freedom and the duty governments have to respect and uphold this value in their countries. In this context, what is happening in Latin America should serve as a reminder that journalists and media outlets play a key role in democracies, a role that should not be taken for granted.

It is bravery that pushes journalists to keep reporting despite the state of insecurity in which they have to work. It is a sense of responsibility to their profession and the democratic contribution they make. As many of them continue to “fall in the line of duty“, governments and society can no longer turn a blind eye. Because, as Mexican media workers tirelessly say, “no se mata la verdad matando periodistas”: “truth cannot be killed by killing journalists”.

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