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Silencing the Press: A Decade of Journalist Murders in Latin America

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A protester holds a poster featuring Regina Martínez, a Mexican journalist killed in 2012. The poster reads: “You don’t kill the truth by killing the journalist.” Image: CIMAC/ Creative Commons

Journalists’ investigations of political issues, corruption, and organized crime in small and medium-sized cities in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Honduras account for 139 murders of media professionals 2011-2020, a study by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows. Half of these journalists had received threats related to their work.

In the framework of “In Danger: Analysis of Journalist Protection Programs in Latin America,” a UNESCO-supported project, RSF analyzed the major methods by which journalists were murdered in order to better understand the challenges that media protection programs must take into account. RSF based the study on information from its barometer, which reports major attacks on journalists worldwide.

In 2020, Latin America was the region with the greatest number of journalists killed for practicing their profession. Taken together, the four countries listed above account for 80% of journalist murders committed in this part of the world during the 10-year period, according to data collected by RSF.

Data analysis was carried out in partnership with Volt Data Lab, which produced the graphics that illustrate this publication.

An analysis of the RSF data shows that 39% of the victims covered topics with a political connection. Other issues most frequently covered by the murdered journalists were crime and corruption. Journalists most often targeted were those working in the field, reporting on and criticizing illegal schemes in their regions.

Programmed Executions

The study deliberately uses the term “target” because in 92% of cases evidence showed that the attackers deliberately focused on a specific journalist. Of all deaths recorded in the period 2011-2020, only 7.2% (10 of 139 cases) occurred in the course of dangerous assignments, when a journalist may not have been killed intentionally.

Some of the journalists were killed in their workplaces — while in newsrooms or studios — but most (58%) were attacked near their homes, or while traveling between home and work. The details of these crimes were also often identical: The journalists were tracked by their attackers, and the killings were clearly mapped out by professional hitmen.

Most Victims Were Men, Living in Small Cities

The majority (93%) of the victims were men. This should not lead to the conclusion that women journalists in the region are better protected. In the region as a whole, where 41% of reporters are women, these journalists are also reduced to silence by violent threat campaigns and harassment, generally online, directed at them and their families. At times these campaigns are run by local political bosses.

The RSF study also shows that risks are greater for journalists who work in small cities. Of those who were killed, 56% lived in cities with populations of less than 100,000. And at least 54% of journalists killed in cities with populations of 100,000 to 500,000 — medium-sized municipalities in Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia — had already received threats before they were murdered.

The statistics do not fit the popular image of an investigative journalist who works for a major newspaper based in a capital city, who is killed for having reported information of national importance. On the contrary, most of the journalists murdered in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Honduras in 2011-2020 lived far from major urban centers, often worked in precarious economic circumstances, contributing to several media organizations, and covered issues that directly affected local officials and inhabitants.

More Effective Protection Programs Urgently Needed

Another conclusion to be drawn from the RSF study is that many of the killings could have been prevented. At least 45% of the victims had reported receiving threats and made them public – either in the media they worked for, on their social network accounts, or directly to local security forces.

However, only 10 of the 139 murdered journalists — none of the women — received government protection. This number represents 7.2% of total victims and nearly 16% of those who had received threats. These data pose the question of why only a minority of murdered journalists had received protection, and why the 10 journalists who did receive protection were murdered.

Although Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Honduras are not officially at war, the statistics are cause for great concern. At the end of 2020, RSF’s annual round-up showed that Mexico was the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, with at least eight journalists murdered. The killings, often carried out savagely, targeted reporters because they had investigated links between organized crime and members of the political class.

Structural Violence

The murder of journalists, the most extreme form of censorship, is only the most visible part of anti-press violence. This practice takes place within a larger regional context of permanent threats and structural violence. Human rights advocates and all those who condemn the powers that be, whether in politics or criminal organizations, are affected in systematic form.

When a country is the scene of structural violence against the press, individual journalists’ freedom of expression is not the only issue at stake. The entire society’s collective right to be informed is also affected. In the words of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights: “Journalism can only be freely practiced when those who do so are not victims of threats or physical, psychological, or moral attacks, or other acts of harassment.”

Journalists have been reduced to silence because the political and public safety environment in their region does not guarantee conditions in which they can practice their profession safely. In addition, most of the media organizations that they work for too economically strained to protect them. And 10% of them are independent journalists or contributors to community radio stations.

One of the goals of “In Danger” is to understand how national journalist protection policies can change this grim reality. The project aims to evaluate the operation and effectiveness of journalist protection mechanisms in the four countries in question.

Acting on the principle that governments are responsible for guaranteeing conditions allowing the free and safe practice of journalism, RSF will present a detailed report to public authorities that includes strategic recommendations designed to contribute to the consolidation of these measures.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published by Reporters Without Borders. You can read the original here. It is republished with permission.

Additional Resources

GIJN Resource Center: Safety and Security

What to Do When You — or Your Sources — Are Being Followed

Freelancing: Safety and Security

Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, for its acronym in French, is one of the world’s leading NGOs in defense of freedom of information and a free press. An independent NGO with consultative status with the UN, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe, it is based in Paris with bureaus in 10 cities and correspondents in 130 countries.

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