By Jesselyn Cook
Mexican authorities discovered the charred remains of Salvador Adame’s body this week, more than a month after a group of armed assailants reportedly abducted the veteran TV reporter in the crime-plagued state of Michoacán.
Halfway through the year, Adame’s death brings to seven the 2017 toll of slain press workers in Mexico ― now among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. This grim figure includes at least four reporters who were killed in direct retaliation for their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Adame’s colleague described him to CPJ as a “a frequent critic of municipal officials” who covered regional news and politics as the director of local channel 6TV. His killing follows a worsening trend of targeted threats and violence against media professionals in the drug-torn nation.
Targeting And Silencing Journalists
Months earlier, Miroslava Breach Velducea, a crime reporter for national newspaper La Jornada, was killed outside her home in the northern state of Chihuaha. An unknown gunman shot her eight times in front of one of her children.
Breach Velducea’s death, “in a calculated act of extreme violence, has left the best journalism of Chihuahua severely injured, showing the seriousness of the failure of the state that has bled with the impunity of corrupt leaders and criminals for years,” La Jornada wrote in her obituary. “It’s not the death of one more journalist ― it’s the death of our society, which bit by bit has become accustomed to the assassination of its best people, silencing them in all sorts of ways.”
The attacker reportedly left a note at the scene of Breach Velducea’s killing, that read: “For being a snitch.”
CPJ data reveals that the majority of slain reporters in Mexico in recent decades had focused their news coverage on issues of crime and corruption ― most of whom are believed to have been killed in acts of retaliatory repression by criminals seeking to silence their critics.
And in many ways, they’ve succeeded.
“Fear and self-censorship by journalists remains very, very strong,” Emmanuel Colombié, Latin America director for Reporters Without Borders (or Reporters sans frontières), told HuffPost. Some reporters have fled Mexico and others have quit the industry as a result of targeted threats and violence against members of the Mexican press, he noted.
In the border state of Tamaulipas, for example, “there are very few journalists remaining,” Colombié said. “Any kind of news has to be based on the official statements and press releases from the government.”
On its annual World Press Freedom index, RSF ranks Mexico 147th out of 180 countries, due to its “pervasive corruption accounting for impunity.”
Corruption And Impunity
The kidnappings and assassinations of journalists in Mexico often go unpunished due a thriving cycle of corruption and impunity, according to CPJ.
“Endemic impunity allows criminal gangs, corrupt officials and cartels to silence their critics,” the organization explained in a special report released in May.
High-level corruption and organized crime including raging cartel violence have long tarnished Mexico’s ongoing drug war. But these issues, while rampant and newsworthy, have become particularly dangerous for journalists to report on.
“At the local level in certain states, the cartels can have direct influence on the political institutions,” Colombié explained. “They can directly give orders to the local authorities. In some states, powerful governors use their connections with local organizations to punish journalists investigating any kind of topic that can negatively impact them. It’s a very complex situation.”
State governors are among Mexico’s least reputable public authorities, according to a 2017 report by the International Crisis Group. At least 11 governors have been investigated since 2010 for corruption, including fraud, money laundering, nepotism and links to drug cartels.
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Mexican journalist Adela Navarro Bello summarized the haunting plight of her colleagues in a sobering CPJ feature.
“Being a journalist in Mexico means learning to live in the shadow of impunity: the impunity you investigate and report on, and the impunity experienced firsthand,” she wrote. “Those who investigate corruption and impunity risk losing their sense of comfort or, worse, their lives. And after their murders, an incomplete file is the most likely end to an investigation into their deaths.”
Insufficient Response From Mexican Government
After the gruesome, public killing of award-winning drug cartel reporter Javier Valdes sparked international outrage in May, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed for the first time to dedicate “the necessary resources to provide journalists and human rights defenders with the protection they need.”
“Violence against journalists and human rights defenders has opened a deep wound in our society,” he added. “What people expect is results, and a fight against impunity.”
Press freedom advocacy organizations lauded his remarks, but they have observed little real change to date and fear they could be “dutiful statements” ahead of Mexico’s 2018 presidential election.
“We welcome this statement by the president, but the important thing now is to do the follow-up,” said Colombié. “We need to see concrete action and reform to protect journalists.”
Mexico also created a special prosecutor office to investigate crimes against freedom of expression more than a decade ago, but the institution has been largely ineffective in addressing the crisis.
It opened 123 case files between February 2016 and February 2017 including 10 homicides, but it has secured only three convictions.
The agency’s ability to conduct investigations independent of state authority influence is more effective on paper than in practice, according to CPJ, and many journalists are also fearful and hesitant to report crimes against them.
“It’s a tragic reality,” Colombié said. “Journalists are scared, and they don’t trust the authorities to protect them, so they just stop working as journalists and they keep silent.”
Published on the Huffington Post on June 30, 2017.
Vietnamese bloggers and rights activists are being beaten, threatened, and intimidated with impunity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Vietnamese government should order an end to all attacks and hold those responsible accountable. Donor governments should tell the Vietnamese authorities to end the crackdown, and that repressing internet freedom, peaceful speech, and activism will carry consequences.
The 65-page report, “No Country for Human Rights Activists: Assaults on Bloggers and Democracy Campaigners in Vietnam,” highlights 36 incidents in which unknown men in civilian clothes beat rights campaigners and bloggers between January 2015 and April 2017, often resulting in serious injuries. Many victims reported that beatings occurred in the presence of uniformed police who did nothing to intervene.
“It’s bad enough that activists in Vietnam have to risk prison for speaking out, but now they have to risk their safety on a daily basis simply for exercising their basic rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Vietnamese government needs to make it clear that it will not tolerate this kind of behavior and bring to an end this campaign against rights campaigners.”
Human Rights Watch has documented a strategy of beating bloggers and rights activists across the country, including in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Vung Tau, as well as in provinces such as Quang Binh, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Binh Duong, Lam Dong, and Bac Giang.
In many cases, assaults have occurred in public view on Vietnam’s streets, such as in the beating of environmental activist La Viet Dung, in July 2016, who was attacked on his way home from a social event with the No-U Football Club in Hanoi. Unknown men struck Dung with a brick and fractured his skull.
In May 2014, unknown men beat rights activist Tran Thi Nga on the street in Hanoi with an iron rod, breaking her right knee and left arm. Assaults also occurred in public spaces such as in a café. In June 2016, an unknown man punched democracy campaigner Nguyen Van Thanh in the face in a café in Da Nang. When police arrived, instead of investigating the assault they detained Nguyen Van Thanh for several hours and questioned him about his political writings.
In other cases, unknown men took activists into cars or vans, beat them, and abandoned them in a deserted area. For instance, in April 2017 a group of men in civilian clothes wearing surgical masks abducted rights activists Huynh Thanh Phat and Tran Hoang Phuc in Ba Don (Quang Binh province), took them into a van and drove away. The men used belts and sticks to whip Phat and Phuc in the van and then abandoned them in a forest. In February 2017, a group of men in civilian clothes abducted rights activists Nguyen Trung Ton and his friend Nguyen Viet Tu, also in Ba Don, dragged them into a van and drove away. The men stripped off Ton’s and Tu’s clothes, covered their heads with their jackets, and then hit them with iron tubes before abandoning them in a forest. Nguyen Trung Ton suffered multiple injuries and underwent surgery in the hospital afterward.
“The fact that thugs abducted activists in broad daylight, forced them into vans, and beat them demonstrates the impunity with which activists are persecuted,” said Adams. “The Vietnamese government should understand that tolerance of these violent attacks will lead to lawlessness and chaos instead of the social order and stability it says it is striving for.”
Activists have also been beaten after participating in public events, such as pro-environment protests, demonstrations to call for the release of fellow activists, or human rights-related events. In December 2015, rights campaigner Nguyen Van Dai went to give a talk about human rights and the constitution at a parish in Nam Dan district (Nghe An). As Nguyen Van Dai and three fellow activists were leaving the area, a group of men wearing surgical masks stopped their taxi, dragged them out of the car, and beat them.
Even the act of showing solidarity by visiting the houses of former political prisoners or welcoming a political prisoner home has triggered violence against activists. In August 2015, a group of bloggers and activists including Tran Thi Nga, Chu Manh Son, Truong Minh Tam, Le Thi Huong, Phan Van Khanh, and Le Dinh Luong went to Lam Dong to visit former political activist Tran Minh Nhat after he was released following four years of imprisonment for allegedly being affiliated with a banned overseas political party. As the activists were leaving town in different buses, unknown men in civilian clothes got onto the buses, dragged them off, and beat them in public.
In all but one case included in this report, Human Rights Watch has found that no perpetrator has been identified and prosecuted – despite the fact that victims often report their beating to the police. On the contrary, some victims, including activists Nguyen Van Dai and Tran Thi Nga, were later arrested and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88 of the penal code. This raises the question about the relationship the authorities have with the assailants in these cases, which range from apparent passive tolerance to active collaboration.
The report draws on incidents reported in foreign media including Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, the BBC, Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, social media including Facebook and YouTube, politically independent websites such as Dan Lam Bao (Citizen Journalism), Dan Luan (Citizen Discussion), Viet Nam Thoi Bao (Vietnam Times), Tin Mung Cho Nguoi Ngheo (Good News for the Poor), Defend the Defenders, and individual blogs. Many of the assaults included in this report have never been published in English. They are also not reported in Vietnamese state-affiliated media.
“State media censorship drives many peaceful critics in Vietnam to express their concerns online,” said Adams. “This pattern of assaults on bloggers and activists is clearly intended to silence critics, who in many cases have no other way to voice legitimate concerns.”
A recent increase in recorded beatings coincided with a temporary decrease in politically motivated arrests during the period in which Vietnam was negotiating with the United States over participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Vietnam’s human rights record was a major focus of the negotiations and US congressional debate. It is possible that the government of Vietnam wanted to show a decrease in political arrests and trials but still pursued measures to crack down on dissent. Ironically, many of the victims of beatings were former political prisoners, including Tran Minh Nhat, Nguyen Dinh Cuong, Chu Manh Son, and Mai Thi Dung. However, recent evidence suggests that a new surge of arrests has occurred in tandem with continued beatings of activists.
“These brave activists and bloggers suffer persecution on a daily basis, yet they do not give up their cause,” said Adams. “International donors and trade partners with Vietnam should support their struggle by urging the Vietnamese government to stop the beatings and to hold these violent assailants accountable.”
Published on HRW on June 18, 2017.