Those holidaying in the popular Mexican resort of Cancún over Christmas will probably have been unaware of the brutal murder of a local newspaper editor on 22 December 2009.
José Alberto Velázquez López was the owner and editor of Expresiones de Tulum, based in Quintana Roo state. He was also a lawyer and a regular contributor to Canal 30, a local television station. He had written several articles accusing the Tulum mayor, Marciano Dzul Caamal, of ‘corruption, bad administration and disdain for the public’. After receiving death threats, including an alleged threatening phone call from the mayor, he stopped reporting on these issues. Despite this self-censorship, the newspaper’s staff continued to receive death threats and its printing press was fire-bombed last November.
Following his newspaper’s Christmas party, Velásquez was driving home when two men on a motorcycle drove alongside him and shot him in the chest. He lost control of his car and hit another vehicle. Velásquez was attended to by Red Cross doctors but died the same night en route to a nearby hospital. He leaves a heavily pregnant wife and five-year-old son.
The editor’s colleagues believe that the murder may have been carried out by supporters of the mayor, who is also a leading local member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The party held power for over seventy years in Mexico, losing to Vicente Fox in 2000 after being accused of systematic corruption. The enmity between the mayor and journalist was well known.
Just eight months ago, I wrote in these pages about a prominent political cartoonist, Mario Robles, who was violently assaulted and subjected to death threats allegedly by members of the PRI in the Mexican state of Oaxaca; I also wrote about the death threats issued against another newspaper editor, Miguel Ángel Casillas Báez, in Jalisco state. To date, no one has been brought to justice for these crimes.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) have recorded the deaths of sixty Mexican journalists since 2000 and the ‘disappearance’ of ten journalists since 2003. In most cases, attacks on journalists are linked to their reporting of organised crime or government corruption. The Special Federal Attorney’s Office for Combating Violence against the Media was founded in February 2006, but, so far, has proved ineffectual.
PEN recorded the murder of seven journalists in 2009 alone and is calling on the government of President Felipe Calderón to amend the constitution and make crimes against journalists a federal offence, so that it is not left to the state authorities, who could themselves be implicated, to investigate and prosecute such crimes. The escalating deaths appear to be part of a worldwide trend: the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) believes at least seventy journalists were killed in 2009 – the highest annual number ever recorded by the organisation, whilst RSF report that physical assaults and threats have gone up by a third worldwide, with the Americas claiming the highest number.
Since the murder of Velázquez, another Mexican reporter, Valentín Valdés Espinosa, was found dead on 8 January 2010, having been tortured and shot in Coahuila state. A veteran crime reporter, José Luis Romero, has ‘disappeared’ in Sinaloa. Both states are in the north of Mexico.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for a thorough and impartial investigation into the murder of newspaper editor and lawyer José Alberto Velázquez López; urging President Felipe Calderón to fulfil promises to make crimes against journalists a federal offence; and calling on the federal authorities to set up protection programmes for journalists to ensure their safety.
Appeals should be addressed to:
President Felipe Calderón
Fax: (+ 52 55) 5093 4901 / 5277 2376
Attorney General Lic. Arturo Chávez Chávez
Procurador General de la República
His Excellency, Ambassador Eduardo Medina Mora Icaza
Mexican Embassy to the United Kingdom
16 St George Street, Hanover Square
London W1S 1FD
Fax: (+44) 20 7495 4035
Many human rights organisations have just released their annual reports, which highlight the need for continued international appeals. The following serves as an update on some of the countries and cases covered by Literary Review in the past year.
RSF claims that in the past year around 160 journalists were forced into exile. More than fifty journalists fled Iran alone. At the end of 2009, at least 167 journalists were behind bars, with Iran now the world’s biggest offender – at the time of writing forty-two journalists are detained (see LR, May and August 2009). Eritrea remains Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists, with thirty-two imprisoned (LR, April 2009). ARTICLE 19 reports that in Italy, ten journalists, including author Roberto Saviano, are under police protection for reporting on the Mafia (LR, Jan 2009). Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi publicly stated that he would ‘strangle’ anyone reporting on the Mafia because it made Italy look bad.
The acclaimed Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo was sentenced on 25 December to eleven years in prison and two years deprivation of political rights for exercising his right of free expression (LR, July 2009). Braving the snow on New Year’s Eve, leading US writers, including Don DeLillo, Edward Albee and A M Homes, gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library to demand his release. A PEN delegation then delivered a letter, on behalf of its 3,400 members, calling on Chinese president Hu Jintao to let him go.