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Impunity, Violence Threatening Press Freedom in Mexico

FILE - A woman posts photos of murdered journalists during a protest against the murder of journalists Lourdes Maldonado and Margarito Martínez in Mexico City, Jan. 25, 2022. Mexico ranks as one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism outside a war zone.

Miguel Ángel López Solana remembers June 20, 2011, as though it were yesterday. It was the day he found his father, Veracruz journalist Miguel Ángel López Velasco, mother and brother dead at their home.

“The first thing I found was the door destroyed, all shattered,” the Mexican photojournalist told VOA.

But as he walked up the stairs of his parents’ home in Veracruz, he didn't realize the worst was yet to come.

He found his mother’s body outside the bedroom, and his dad's inside, his face beaten.

“I ran to my brother’s bedroom,” López said. “And I see his body, and face down in his room as well. All of them were killed with a gunshot to the back of their heads.”

The killing of López Velasco and his family made headline news. Crime scene investigators came to their home, but 10 years on, they still don’t have answers or justice.

“This is not an isolated murder; this is part of a desire to control and silence the work of professionals who are exposing realities that, of course, are uncomfortable to politicians and the corrupt,” said Almudena Bernabeu, prosecutor at the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists.

Founding of the tribunal

In November 2021, three press freedom organizations — Free Press Unlimited, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders — met at The Hague, responding to the crisis of crimes committed with impunity against journalists. There, they inaugurated the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists. During the past six months, the governments of Sri Lanka, Mexico and Syria have been the focal point of a series of hearings that evaluated their role in cases of impunity, violence and state action.

The People’s Tribunal has been trying to raise awareness of and bring accountability in the López Velasco case and others.

Mexico ranks as one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism outside of an active war zone. Press freedom activists and other journalists cite impunity, crime and harassment as among the challenges those in the industry face.

During the April 26-27 hearing in Mexico City, journalists, activists and family members of the victims, including the two surviving children of reporter López Velazco, shared their cases with the tribunal.

The Mexican government didn’t respond directly to VOA’s request for comment on the tribunal, but the press relations office of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told VOA that “progress is being made in the eradication of impunity in crimes against journalists. Action is being taken against suspects in at least six of this year’s cases, the statement says.”

López remembers his dad’s love of journalism and working alongside him.

“Velasco was a daily coverage reporter who was in charge of editing the security story. My brother and I worked with him — I took the photos. My dad used to call me to go the location of the story, and he did this for more than 20 years,” López told VOA.

But covering crime and security issues comes with great risk.

“The existence of organized crime in the vast majority in the regions and states in Mexico, their collusion with public officials, is extremely important because it means that journalists are not only vulnerable through this, but they also constantly have to deal with extreme power players who are willing to use deadly force against them,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Committee to Protect Journalists’ representative in Mexico.

Investigative journalist Anabel Hernández has weathered attacks and threats to her life for digging into corruption.

“I have lived in involuntary exile since 2014 because the Mexican government has not had the capacity of the state to protect me,” she told VOA on the opening day of the hearing.

For Zeta news magazine General Director Adela Navarro Bello, challenges and risks in Mexico are rising, and protection for journalists in the country is limited and inadequate.

“What it means is that we do not have rule of law in Mexico,” she said. “If we had rule of law, the killers of journalists would be in prison, but in 98% of cases, it is not like that.”

Call to action

Even though the tribunal doesn’t have the power to prosecute anyone, it works instead to highlight the circumstances of killings and raise awareness. The hope is that by keeping these cases alive, the tribunal can begin to build an environment where journalists can feel a bit safer doing their jobs.

“It has been a while since I have talked about my father’s case,” López said. “I was always afraid, but recently I was granted asylum in the United States, and through that process I found peace. This year, I came back to Mexico to talk about his case. It is time to look ahead.”

López thanked the members of the tribunal during his testimony by saying: “I hope this tribunal can be a spearhead to the end the impunity that prevails in Mexico.”

For López and his sister, who still lives in Veracruz, the hope is the tribunal will serve as a call to action for the Mexican government.

Closing arguments and a hearing will take place in The Hague on June 20, 2022, when a panel of judges will deliver a preliminary judgment and states named in the indictment can choose their right to defense.