“Jose Luis Ortega Mata was a brave publisher of Semanario, a weekly newsmagazine [sic] in the Mexico-U.S. border town of Ojinaga, Chihuaua. He denounced drug trafficking in that northern region of Mexico and the relationship between drug lords with local police, politicians and businessmen. Early in 2001, he was about to publish a new report on how drug money was being used to finance political campaigns when a gunman shot him twice in the head, killing him on his way to the office.”
Raymundo Riva-Palacio, a Nieman Fellow, former managing editor of El Universal, and current columnist for ejeCentral.com.mx – a Mexican news site, knows firsthand the dangers of covering Mexican drug cartels.
In his article Self-Censorship as a Reaction to Murders By Drug Cartels, published in the summer 2006 edition of the Nieman Reports, Riva-Palacio examines the problems posed by cartel violence against the media.
As Riva-Palacio notes, Mexican media organizations face a unique challenge – how to cover corruption, drug violence and trafficking effectively while evading the threat of direct retaliation from the cartels themselves. The threat of violence against the media often leads to self-censorship – a dangerous proposition for a democratic country whose government is mired in corruption and heavily influenced by criminal organizations.
“[T]he case of young reporter Alfredo Jiminez, from el Imparcial in Hermosillo, who disappeared in April 2005 on his way to meet a federal police source. Jiminez was a notorious investigative reporter who had several scoops on the whereabouts of a number of members of one drug cartel in the region. Federal authorities investigating the crime didn't know that Jimenez was fed information from a rival cartel to damages its enemy and, when the “enemy” found out the original source of information; they are presumed to have murdered him.”
Riva-Palacio explained that the pressure exerted on the media by cartels has caused media organizations to rethink how to cover the issues.
“This year  some Mexican news organizations decided to confront this challenge by working together. Their model is based on the U.S. Experience of the Arizona Project, created by independent journalists to continue the work of investigative reporter Don Bolles, who was assassinated while researching mob activities in Arizona. The Mexican newspapers agreed to investigate collectively the whereabouts of EL Imparcial reporter Jimenez and publish every step in their investigation on the same day, without a byline, to protect the reporters involved in the project.”
Perla Gómez Gallardo, a law professor and researcher at the National University of Mexico, noted the importance of a strong media in an article published in the Mexican Journal of Communication in September 2009 titled, El ejercicio periodístico como profesión de riesgo (The Profession of Journalism as a profession of risk").
“Ante el clima generalizado de inseguridad, ejecuciones, secuestro amenazas y extorsiones, el panorama resulta desolador para la socieda mexicana. En tal contexto, el ejercicio periodístico cobra especial relevancia por la función social que desempeñan sus practicantes al intermediar entre los sucesos de interés publico y los ciudanos.”
“In face of a general state of insecurity, executions, threats of kidnapping and extortion, the outlook is a devastating situation for Mexican society. In such context, the profession of journalism is especially critical for the social role it carries as an intermediary between events of public interest and citizens.”
Now, more than ever, the Mexican media must regroup and rethink how to cover the important and dangerous topic of drug cartels. Its coverage, while risky for the reporters and media, is possibly the only check on a system that is spinning out of control.