Last week newly elected Republican congressman Greg Gianforte of Montana published an apology for assaulting a journalist who persisted in asking questions during a campaign event. Gianforte threw in a $50,000 donation to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to deepen the mea culpa.
Since August, 2007, three convictions and several journalism awards marked the work of the Chauncey Bailey Project, a team of reporters from around the San Francisco Bay area who merged and went into action after the murder of the Oakland journalist.
The Chauncey Bailey Project mirrored the Arizona Project: In June of 1976, dozens of investigative reporters rallied after the car-bombing death of journalist Don Bolles. That team continued Bolles’ reporting and exposed systemic corruption in Arizona. It also cemented the standing of Investigative Reporters and Editors as the nation’s pre-eminent professional journalism organization.
These landmark incidents underscore the role of the journalist in American life: We’re irreplaceable components in the nation’s democratic machine, protected by the Bill of Rights, the only profession singled out for such status in the nation’s sacred Constitution. Politicians, thugs, and mob bosses have learned that lesson.
Contrast that with what’s happening in Mexico, one of the richest democracies on the planet, arguably one of our most important commercial partners, and country of origin for nearly 36 million U.S. residents.
Since 1992, CPJ says 41 reporters in Mexico have been murdered as a direct result of doing their jobs. Some human rights groups in Mexico say the number is more than 100 killed or disappeared journalists.
But in Mexico the consequences for assaulting journalists have been almost non-existent. So it’s no surprise to see the official inaction since last month’s brazen day-time murder of muckraking reporter Javier Valdez Cárdenas in the west-coast city of Culiacan.
Valdez’s death on May 15 struck a particular chord with many journalists in the U.S. He had won a Maria Moors Cabot award for raising the standard of Latin American journalism. His bravery had been lauded by CPJ, which in 2011 named him an International Press Freedom Award winner. And he was a gracious host for visiting journalists from around the globe as they dropped into Culiacan to write about Mexico’s seemingly endless war on drugs.
Valdez was a star columnist for Riodoce. The scrappy weekly and website were must-reads. He was also aware of the danger around him. But Valdez noted that his was a necessary role, that his local knowledge in a city at the epicenter of Mexico’s drug trade almost obliged him to keep Riodoce at the forefront of drug-war coverage.
“I’m involved in drug trafficking,” Valdez told Bloomberg’s Michael Riley in 2012, “because I live here.”
Since his death, it has been devastating for the authors of this note to see fear and frustration build among our Mexican colleagues. Yet fear is not keeping Mexican journalists from speaking out. In a series of protests around the country, reporters are demanding that, for starters, the nation’s democratic institutions just do their jobs and seek basic justice for a journalist who, on the public’s behalf, held the powerful accountable.
We are sons of Mexico, born in the country’s rural north. We were educated in the United States as children of immigrant farm workers. We returned to Mexico as correspondents for American news audiences, chronicling life in a country that wasn’t “foreign” to us. We’ve also come face-to-face with risks that emerge from covering the illicit drug trade.
This is why we’re writing now in the name of Javier Valdez. We want the dastardly crime that claimed his life to not be forgotten. Today we are joining with journalists around the globe in calling out the Mexican government, demanding that it alter the status quo: Solve this one murder and thus elevate an assault on a journalist to the gravity of a national security threat. This is because in a fledgling democracy, wracked by drug violence and corruption, the murder of a journalist is a strike against a nation’s security.
That one step would change the outcome of Javier Valdez’s murder. Today, tragically, it’s seen as another in a string of meaningless deaths in a nation increasingly mute amid so much violence. Overall, more than 90 percent of homicides in Mexico go unsolved.
Yes, the Mexican government has responded to past assaults on reporters with special prosecutors, bodyguards for some threatened journalists, and–on paper–promises of severe punishment for those who assault reporters. It’s mostly theater. Where are the suspects in handcuffs? The trials? The convictions? The defense of rule-of-law?
In our time as journalists covering Mexico and Latin America, we’ve seen the power of Mexico’s institutions when they choose to swing into action. The nation has legions of talented investigators and prosecutors who’ve sworn a commitment to defend Mexican democracy.
So what would it take to push the Mexican government into action? Politicians must be reminded that they can’t stand on the world stage and embrace democracy and rule of law while simultaneously doing nothing of consequence after the murders of journalists.
Writing in USA Today, Antonio Garza, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, put it eloquently: “Providing better protections for Mexico’s journalists, and by extension defending the country’s rule of law, won’t have any easy solutions. But it all starts by sitting down with journalists, hearing from them directly, and truly listening to their concerns and suggestions. Mexico’s civil society should continue to be vocal and unrelenting, and partner with multilateral organizations that are well-suited to highlight crimes against journalists and ensure that they continue to receive high-level attention and pressure.”
We’re convinced that action by the Mexican government in this one crime could guarantee the legacy of Javier Valdez’s work and honor a man who was not merely an outstanding investigative journalist, but a proud defender of Mexican democracy.