When you scan Reporters Without Borders's Press Freedom Index—as I happened to late yesterday, on World Press Freedom Day—the results are mostly expected: Eritrea and North Korea are the least free; Finland and Norway are the most. But seeing Mexico fall so low—number 149 of 179 countries—is not only shocking but must be one of the great tragedies for media in the last decade.
Mexico's press is incredibly robust, critical, and investigative. The country's proud literary tradition is infused with the reportage of news—the writing, reporting and editing are superb. Newspapers are among the best in Latin America, as are magazines such as Nexos and Proceso, which one could argue offer far more comprehensive news analysis that most US news sources.
So the lack of freedom that has pushed Mexico so low boils down to one word: safety. Journalists are a target for many of the actors in the country's drug war who want to literally kill the news about their operation.
Organized criminals have not taken kindly to their moves being investigated; three journalists were killed this week, likely for their work reporting on drug trafficking networks. Reporters investigating military and police links to organized crimes have also been killed or beaten. Threats are nearly ubiquitous for any journalists on the drug beat.
But the news gets worse: Almost none of these journalists' murders are ever investigated, let alone solved. Mexico was recently ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the 8th worst country in the world for impunity. Mexico is home to 15 unsolved murders of journalists—and in truth, journalists are just one class of victims whose deaths never receive a close look. Last summer, I reported that only one in 20 murders is even followed up.
I don't need to spell out the situation that this creates: Journalists find it increasingly difficult to report on the most important stories facing the country; criminal organizations' impunity—already brazen—is increased as yet another investigative glance is turned away; the government is not held accountable for its own role in the drug war to the same extent as it could be with a free press.
In response to the latest wave of journalist deaths, Mexico's legislature on April 30th passed a bill that would require the government to protect endangered journalists and human rights defenders. This is an incredibly laudable step, though it's quite unclear how it will work in practice—how and if it is truly implemented.
So far, Mexico's press has fought back indefatigably against threats, continuing to cover organized crime. But with each killing, there is a double tragedy: When journalists are silenced, the story is too.