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Zeta: violence makes inroads into press freedom

By means of various ploys, the governor of the northwestern state of Baja California in November 1979 managed to get control of ABC, the only independent daily newspaper that dared to criticise him. The newspaper’s two managing editors, Hector Félix Miranda et J. Jesús Blancornelas, responded six months later by launching a weekly which, with a touch of humour, they called Zeta ("Z").

It quickly forged a reputation for investigative reports and a courageous editorial line. Its stated goal was, "To publish what the other newspapers don’t publish." There is no shortage of taboos in this region bordering the United States, where all kinds of trafficking is rife. Zeta was the first to report on the links between local authorities and drug traffickers in September 1985 in an article entitled "The mafia invades Baja California."

This commitment came with a price. Miranda was murdered on 20 April 1988. An investigation led to the conviction of those who carried out the killing but no charges were brought against the instigators. Those convicted included the bodyguard of Jorge Hank Rhon, the son of the local boss of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - which then ruled Mexico like a single-party state - whose integrity had been questioned by Miranda. Zeta refused to take this impunity lying down, and since then has run a full page each week saying: "Jorge Hank Rhon, why did your bodyguard, Antonio Vera Palestina, kill me?"

It was Blancornelas’ turn to be the target of hit-men on 25 November 1997. He was badly inured but survived. His bodyguard did not. The contract for the killing had been put out by the Arellano Félix brothers, drug barons who control the leading Tijuana cartel, whose reign over the region is regularly condemned by Blancornelas.

Zeta’s editors, who have special protection, decided to maintain the same editorial policies despite the dangers. But one of them paid for this decision with his life. A contract killer gunned down Francisco Javier Ortíz Franco at point-blank range on 22 June 2004. An editorial writer and member of the Zeta staff since it was founded, Ortíz was known for his revelations about corruption and drug-trafficking. For the past several months, he had also been a member of a commission of a enquiry with the job of taking another look at the Miranda murder.

This was another hard blow for the newspaper’s staff, but once again there was no question of letting themselves be intimidated. "The suspects" and then "The murderers" were the headlines which the weekly immediately ran over stories about its investigation in order to put pressure on the authorities. The fight is not over yet.

Differing degrees of press freedom

As he was a leading regional media figure, Ortíz’s death sent shocks waves though the ranks of Mexico’s journalists. It was, however, just one instance in a resurgence of violence against the press in 2004, after several years without any killings. A journalist had already been killed in March. Another went missing in May. It was unclear whether these two cases were linked to the victims’ work. But this could not said about the 31 August killing of Francisco Arratia Saldierna, in which one of the perpetrators confessed to the police after his arrest that the murder was ordered because of Arratia’s reports on organised crime and corruption. Arratia also worked in the border region.

The outrage was followed by protests. Hundreds of Mexican journalists staged an unprecedented demonstration throughout the country on 11 October to demand justice for their colleagues and an end to impunity. They called in particular for the federal authorities to be put in charge of investigating the murders of journalists, instead of the state authorities, which they suspect of being corrupt and in some cases controlled by the very people responsible for the murders.

There are two levels of press freedom in Mexico. On one hand, the national press seems (relatively) sheltered from repression because of its importance. On the other, the regional and local media are regularly the target of attacks and harassment not only by organised crime but also local politicians and police who still find it hard to accept that it is the media’s role to question and criticise. This is an area in which democracy is not working at the local level.

But the problems of press freedom in Mexico are not limited to violence. Journalists also have to live with the risk of being imprisoned for press offences and attacks on the confidentiality of their sources. Nine journalists in Ciudad Juárez (in the northern state of Chihuahua) were contacted at the end of May by a member of the local prosecutor’s office who asked them to identify the sources for their reports about murders of women. At the same time, articles 350 to 363 of the federal criminal code still envisage up to two years in prison for press offences, in violation of UN and OAS standards.

Legislative reform on these two issues were part of the demands made by the journalists who demonstrated in October. To keep up the pressure, an association was formed called "Ni uno más" (Not one more). The campaign unfortunately failed to prevent the killing of another reporter at the end of November which Blancornelas also suspects was the work of organised crime. Nonetheless, the continuation of the campaign is vital if press freedom is one day to become a reality throughout Mexico.

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