Mexican Reporters, Activists Demand State Protection

(IPS) – Journalists and human rights activists in Mexico are frantically seeking a mechanism to protect them from attacks related to their work, but the state has been slow to respond. The Colombian model might provide a solution.

Already this year, three reporters have been murdered without any of the perpetrators being brought to justice, presaging another difficult year for Mexican media workers.

Human rights activists also face harassment, criminal prosecution and murders, according to reports by the United Nations and human rights groups.

“Mexico is experiencing what Colombia went through in the 1980s and 1990s, when a systematic war was waged on particular groups, like journalists. It’s a problem that requires immense political will,” the head of the Colombian non-governmental Foundation for the Freedom of the Press (FLIP), Andrés Morales, told IPS.

Before their rise in Mexico, drug cartels were already a major cause of violence in Colombia. Concern over drug trafficking, as well as the guerrillas, has led to massive military aid to the country from the United States.

In both Mexico and Colombia, the armed forces are carrying out duties traditionally performed by the police.

Morales, who is also a member of the Colombian Regulation and Risk Assessment Committee (CRER) which scrutinises threats to at-risk groups in his country, was taking part in a Feb. 11-12 seminar in the Mexican capital on the question of coming up with a protection mechanism for journalists and human rights defenders.

Convened by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), the interior ministry and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the meeting was devoted to analysing the Colombian experience and discussing the design of a programme for the protection of reporters and human rights activists in Mexico.

The CRER was created in 2002, after the 1998 murders of trade unionist Jorge Ortega and lawyer and activist Eduardo Umaña in Colombia.

“The programme came into being because the state was failing to protect people. There are international commitments that the states have not taken on board and put into practice,” Luis Novoa, a consultant to the Colombian delegation from the OHCHR, said on the first day of the seminar Thursday.

Novoa is also a former member of Colombia’s Protection Programme, attached to the CRER.

Originally the CRER protected labour leaders and human rights defenders. Now it covers 16 at-risk categories, including journalists.

In 2009 it afforded protection to 11,179 people, of whom 1,400 were human rights campaigners and 171 were reporters.

Colombia is racked by an internal conflict between leftwing guerrillas who took up arms in 1964, the government armed forces and far-right paramilitary groups.

Last year 13 reporters were murdered in Mexico, the worst yearly figure yet for journalists. The country has become the most dangerous in Latin America for media professionals, more so even than Colombia.

Since 2000, 60 journalists have been killed in Mexico and at least nine more are ‘disappeared.’

In their annual report launched Wednesday, titled “Between Violence and Indifference”, the London-based human rights organisation Article 19 and the National Centre for Social Communication (CENCOS) documented 244 attacks on media workers, of which 66 percent were attributed to police, lawmakers and authorities at municipal and national levels.

This brings into question the common presumption that organised crime groups are behind the attacks.

The two NGOs said the incidents included physical assaults, wrongful dismissal and shootings. The latest crime was the killing, in late January, of the editor and publisher of the weeklies El Oportuno and El Despertar de la Costa, Jorge Ochoa, in the southern state of Guerrero.

Human rights activist Josefina Reyes, a member of the National Front Against Repression, was killed Jan. 3 in the northern state of Chihuahua, on the border with the United States. She had campaigned vigorously on behalf of her son, who was taken away by a group of soldiers after being accused of drug trafficking, and has not been seen since.

There were 8,000 drug-related killings in Mexico in 2009, according to the annual report by CNDH.

The situation of activists and reporters “is a gauge of a society’s respect for human rights,” said the Mexico representative of OHCHR, Alberto Brunori, at the opening of the seminar.

The United Nations agency recommended that the Mexican government set up a protection mechanism for human rights campaigners, to keep them safe from harm.

The OHCHR reported in October that between January 2006 and August 2009 there had been 128 cases of attacks on human rights workers, including 10 murders. During that period the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders sent the Mexican government 54 urgent actions and allegation letters about these cases.

Threats made up 27 percent of the cases, 20 percent took the form of prosecution of human rights activists, 17 percent involved harassment and 10 percent were arbitrary forms of injustice, like stealing information and illegal searches of offices.

The CRER in Colombia is made up of seven permanent representatives of government agencies, and delegates from the target groups, such as FLIP.

When a complaint is received, they investigate it and if confirmed, they adopt protection measures like providing armed escorts or armoured cars, financial support or relocating the victim.

If a case is urgent, the rule is to act first and investigate later. However, the response is too slow, Morales admitted, as it can take weeks to set actions in motion.

The scheme has had positive results that are reflected in the statistics. In 2000, 12 journalists were killed because of their work, while last year only one such murder was reported. A further five reporters were killed without an apparent link with their occupation.

“The programme has its shortcomings, but it’s much better than no programme at all,” said Morales.

The CRER’s budget was 56 million dollars in 2009 and is 57 million dollars this year.

“The challenges are to optimise security resources, monitor and control the measures, and apply the programme more rigorously so it doesn’t get overwhelmed,” said the head of Human Rights at the Colombian Interior and Justice Ministry, Rafael Bustamante, who was also at the seminar.

But the government plan suffered a severe setback in 2009 when it was discovered that espionage was occurring for sabotage purposes against journalists, opposition leaders, judges and officials. It was being carried out by the DAS, Colombia’s main intelligence agency, which is also one of the state bodies represented on the CRER.

The Colombian Attorney General’s Office, which investigated and prosecuted the case, found documents showing that DAS agents assigned as security guards to threatened opposition leaders were themselves spying on them and reporting in detail on their activities and private lives, with the aim of interfering with their activities.