The deadliest year in at least three decades for Mexican journalists and media workers is nearing a close, with 15 slayings — a perilous situation underlined by a brazen near-miss attack this week on one of the country’s most prominent journalists.
Two gunmen astride a motorcycle shot up radio and television journalist Ciro Gómez Leyva’s armored vehicle 200 yards from his home Thursday night. The journalist described the attack and posted photos of his vehicle to social media.
Solidarity has grown among Mexico’s press corps amid the carnage, and its members are making increasing noise after each killing. They also have pushed back against a longtime government narrative that the victims weren’t real journalists or were corrupt.
Still, the killings — 15 counted by The Associated Press — have continued to rise.
This year, many of the dead were small town reporters running their own outlets on a shoestring. Others were freelancers, including for national publications, in big cities like Tijuana.
Also on Thursday, assailants took aim at journalist Flavio Reyes de Dios, director of an online news site in Palenque, a town in the southern state of Chiapas. A vehicle without license plates followed him and then ran his motorcycle off the road, injuring the journalist, the press advocacy group Article 19 said.
That incident drew little notice. But it was national news that shots were fired at Gómez Leyva, who is one of Mexico’s best-known journalists. He is a regular critic of the government and a frequent target of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s tirades against press criticism.
Nevertheless, López Obrador on Friday condemned the attempt against Gómez Leyva. While acknowledging they had their differences, the president said, “It is completely reprehensible for anyone to be attacked.”
Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that this year the only nation to see more journalists killed is Ukraine, which is fighting the Russian invasion.
“We started gathering data on homicides of journalists in 1992, and it’s been both the highest number of journalist killings in a single year, and we can also say that so far it looks to be the deadliest ‘sexenio’ (Mexico’s six-year presidential term), which means the deadliest period of a single Mexican president if the trend as things stand right now continues,” Hootsen said.
“Andrés Manuel López Obrador, both during the campaign and as president, has successfully politicized journalism in Mexico more than it has ever been in recent memory,” Hootsen said.
Katherine Corcoran, author of “In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-up and the True Cost of Silencing the Press,” said a big reason that journalist killings have remained stubbornly high in Mexico is that government officials are behind many of them.
“It’s some kind of government corruption that’s being threatened or some kind of government empire that’s being threatened when they go after these journalists,” said Corcoran, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Mexico.
The other factor is that Mexico’s press has become more independent and aggressive, she said. “The reporters really are hitting a nerve and that’s what’s getting them killed.”
Corcoran’s book focused on the 2012 killing one such journalist, Regina Martínez from the national news magazine Proceso. She said Martínez’s murder in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz overturned the government narrative that had long painted journalists who were killed as victims of their own corruption. Martínez was well-known, respected, ethical and believed to be beyond reproach.
Since Martínez was slain in April 2012, at least 86 other journalists and media workers have been killed in Mexico, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ data.
While there is more solidarity among Mexico’s journalists, they still receive little support from the Mexican public. When a journalist is killed, dozens of colleagues gather to protest, but there is generally not an outpouring of anger from society in general.
Corcoran said that stems from a long period when much of Mexico’s press was part of the government machine and took significant amounts of money in exchange for positive coverage.
“That idea of paying the press is going to haunt the press in Mexico forever, because it did exist and intermittently came back,” she said.
López Obrador frequently hammers that point during his daily news conferences. His administration cut much of those government payments and he says that is the reason he receives critical coverage. Much like former U.S. President Donald Trump did, López Obrador dismisses any critical press coverage as coming from corrupt reporters he calls his adversaries.
Last February, after five journalists had already been killed, the president said journalists “lie like they breathe.”
Still, Hootsen said there is not any evidence that federal officials in the current administration are behind violence targeting journalists. However, he said, “it is very disappointing to see that even though the government is not actively persecuting journalists, it has done very little to prevent the persecution of journalists by other actors, either state or non-state.”
In the absence of that protection, Mexican journalists have become much better prepared for situations of violence by creating formal and informal networks of support and rapid response, as well as strengthening ties to civil society organizations, he said.
But when there are attacks on journalists they seldom lead to arrests and even more rarely to convictions.
“In terms of impunity, we are still seeing just about the same numbers that we’ve always seen, which means that more than 95% of all the murders of journalists linger in impunity,” Hootsen said.