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Mexico22 January 2009

Self-censorship, exile or certain death : the choice faced by journalists in Ciudad Juárez

Reporters Without Borders and the Centre for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET), a Mexico City-based press freedom organisation, are today releasing the results of a joint fact-finding visit to the northern border city of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, that was prompted by the 13 November murder of Armando Rodríguez Carreón of the El Diario newspaper and a wave of violence that has forced journalists to flee into exile.

A news conference is to be held today in Mexico City to present the report, the full text of which can be downloaded in Spanish.

“This report highlights the terrible dilemma that the region’s journalists face - censor themselves, go into exile or risk an almost certain death that will go completely unpunished,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It also points out that the deployment of many federal personnel - civilian and military - to this major drug-trafficking stronghold has not made the city any safer and has even exacerbated the violence.”

The press freedom organisation added: “The authorities have themselves become another source of fear for journalists. More than ever before, the federal government must keep a close eye on its own personnel and overcome a reluctance to accept that press freedom is threatened by these shocking levels of violence. We urge the authorities to act with resolve in ensuring protection and attention to victims, combating impunity and enforcing discipline within their own ranks.”

A joint Reporters Without Borders-CEPET team met with reporters, newspaper editors and radio station managers in Ciudad Juárez in early December. The visit coincided with a surge in violence resulting from clashes between members of the rival Juárez and Sinaloa cartels and a federal government offensive against both.

More 4,000 people were killed as a result of the government offensive and attacks by drug trafficking cartels in Mexico in 2008. More than a quarter of these deaths, 1,456, occurred in Ciudad Juárez alone. “We are sick with fear, we know that if they want to kill you, they will kill you and no one is there to protect you,” a journalist told the delegation. “We scared because of what we know, not because of what we publish,” another said.

Eight Ciudad Juárez journalists received threatening mobile phone messages claiming to come from a drug cartel in January 2008. The messages all said, “Don’t get mixed up with the wrong people,” or something very similar. Armando Rodríguez Carreón was one of the journalists. When he reported the threat to the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office, he was told he should leave town as there was no way of guaranteeing his safety.

Rodríguez finally went back to work after a two-month break, while other journalists preferred to go into self-exile. He was gunned down on 13 November as he was taking his children to school. There were more telephone threats against journalists during his funeral the next day. As a result, the number of journalists leaving the region or the country increased.

The investigation into Rodríguez’s murder was quickly assigned to the office of the special federal prosecutor for crimes of violence against the press, which was established on 15 February 2006. The handling of the case was unfortunately a classic example of how to reinforce impunity. Without any evidence to support their claim, certain local or federal officials put out the word that Rodríguez was murdered because of his links with a drug baron.

Such events undermined the already shaky confidence of the public and news media in the authorities, including the federal ones, who are all suspected of being infiltrated by organised crime. Nine federal justice ministry officials were fired in 2008 for this reason, and some of them were prosecuted.

As the report points out, the dispatch of 2,500 soldiers and federal officials to Ciudad Juárez has done nothing to check this unprecedented wave of violence. Direct threats from military personnel led Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, El Diario’s regional correspondent, to seek refuge on the other side of the US border in El Paso, Texas, where he is being held by the US department of immigration.

In view of a situation that is seriously compromising press freedom and, more broadly, the freedoms recognised by the Mexican constitution, Reporters Without Borders and CEPET urge the local and federal authorities to:

-  Respect the mandate they have received from society and to take concrete steps to guarantee the public’s safety and freedom of expression.

-  Respect the human rights and freedom of expression of journalists, news media and society as a whole in the course of their actions against organised crime. Those responsible for human rights violations must be punished.

-  Either release the evidence supporting the allegations of links between Armando Rodríguez Carreón and drug traffickers or, in the absence of any such evidence, apologise to his family.

Reporters Without Borders and CEPET also appeal to the Mexican and US media to show solidarity for the journalists who have been the victims of threats or violence and to support freedom of expression in their actions.

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