Mexico usually makes world headlines for the violence related to turf battles between warring drug cartels. In recent months these battles have escalated, exacerbated, many believe, by President Calderón’s attempts to crush them with force. However, the alarming rise in the attacks on writers accompanying this violence remains under-reported outside human rights circles. In 2008 alone, PEN recorded the deaths of six print journalists and one author, and a total of fifty-four attacks on writers compared to forty-two incidents in 2007.
To mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, over fifty prominent writers, including Paul Auster, Lydia Cacho, Noam Chomsky, Ariel Dorfman and Derek Walcott, signed PEN’s Declaration in Defense of the Freedom to Write in the Americas. The Declaration condemns the persistent attacks against freedom of expression in Mexico and highlights the urgent need to combat impunity in the region.
Few people realise that Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist. Those reporting on crime and drug trafficking are particularly at risk. Government officials and the police are often complicit in violence against journalists. On 3 May 2009 Carlos Ortega Samper, a lawyer and writer for the daily El Tiempo de Durango, was shot dead by four unidentified gunmen. According to PEN, Ortega had criticised poor hygiene standards in a local abattoir and was investigating allegations of corruption by a local policeman. He claimed that the town mayor and another local official had threatened him over the article.
I have written in these pages about Lydia Cacho, who continues to suffer persecution for her writing, and her case is the perfect example of how writers become the victims of state agents. She continues to fight for legal redress following the alleged involvement of a state governor in her 2005 abduction, intimidation and detention because of her book exposing a child pornography ring.
On 19 April 2009, a political cartoonist, Mario Robles, who works for the newspaper Noticias Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca in western Mexico, was violently assaulted and subjected to death threats. The attack was carried out by members of Oaxaca’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – who have held onto power in the state for over seventy-five years. According to ARTICLE 19 (the human rights organisation), Robles alleges that he was set upon by Indalesio Cruz Alcázar and his son Isalesis Cruz, both of whom are campaigning for the PRI in the upcoming July elections. He reported that the men approached him and began kicking him repeatedly. They told him that he needed to modify his cartoons, and threatened to kill both him and his family.
An award-winning cartoonist in Mexico, Robles is considered a prominent political commentator in the region. Despite reporting the attack to the Oaxaca State Department of Justice, he has received no offer of protection from them. ARTICLE 19 has taken up his case, concerned that this sort of attack constitutes censorship of political commentary: ‘Cartoons serve a particular purpose in terms of political commentary,’ said Dr Agnés Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. ‘They are particularly influential because an image can often be more effective in making an impression than words … [and is a] form of social commentary that needs to be protected under the right to freedom of expression.’
Meanwhile, PEN is alarmed by the death threats issued against El Diario de los Altos editor, Miguel Angel Casillas Báez, in Jalisco State in March 2009. The threats allegedly come from Los Zetas, a paramilitary criminal gang linked to drug traffickers and responsible for hundreds of murders in the region.
It is believed that a local politician is behind the threats, and that they are in response to Casillas and his newspaper’s coverage of a local dam development project, which has led members of the local community to fear that their homes will be flooded. El Diario de los Altos and local human rights organisations have criticised the failure of the authorities to consult adequately with local communities or provide detailed information on the potential impact and compensation packages.
On 18 March, Casillas received a call on his mobile. An anonymous male voice told him: ‘We know who you are, where you live, where you go, who your family are and we want to know how you are going to cooperate with us.’ The caller implied that he was acting on behalf of a politician.
The previous day, the editor noticed that both his personal email and that of the newspaper had been hacked and a disturbing message had been left: ‘Today the email of the newspaper has been kidnapped. Careful what you publish, we don’t want to hurt anyone. Regards from Jalisco State Congress’.
All too often in Mexico these sorts of threats are acted upon. Many writers and journalists are describing a climate of censorship where they feel unable to write about the issues they want to investigate for fear of violent or deadly reprisals.
Readers may like to send appeals to the Mexican Ambassador asking him to ensure that the Jalisco authorities instigate a thorough and impartial investigation into the threats against Miguel Angel Casillas Báez; seeking assurances that appropriate action will be taken so that Casillas, his family and other journalists at the Diario de los Altos are protected against future threats; expressing concern at the attack and death threats against Mario Robles and dismay at the evident lack of tolerance within the electoral process in Oaxaca state; and seeking assurances that he will be offered appropriate protection and that intimidation of this nature will cease. Appeals should be sent to:
His Excellency, Juan José Bremer de Martino
16 St George Street
London W1S 1FD
Fax: +44 20 7495 4035
For further information on PEN’s year-long campaign please visit: http://www.internationalpen.org.uk
Update: On 11 May 2009, Roxana Saberi was released from Tehran’s Evin prison after her eight-year prison sentence was reduced to a two-year suspended sentence. Thanks to all of you who sent appeals.