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Is This the Most Dangerous Place to Be a Female Journalist Right Now?

One reporter was strangled to death in her apartment; another was shot dead in her car. In Mexico, women in journalism face the constant threat of violence.

Andalusia Knoll Soloff

Andalusia Knoll Soloff

A photographer in Mexico on International Women's Day. All photos by Andalusia Knoll Soloff

In April of 2012, Mexican investigative journalist Regina Martinez was found dead in her apartment in Xalapa, the capital of the coastal state of Veracuz. She had been strangled to death.

Five years on, working as a journalist in Mexico—especially if you are a woman—remains fraught with danger.

Martinez had extensively reported on the links between local government and organized crime for Proceso, a Mexican magazine. You might think that Martinez's work would provide the focus of the criminal investigation into her death. Instead, the state prosecutor described it as a crime of passion committed by a lover, made evident by the fact that she had makeup and perfume in her home.

Her alleged romantic partner was never found. Five years later, no one has been sentenced for her murder and the true motive behind her assassination remains unknown. (A man had previously been convicted of the crime, but his sentence was revoked after it emerged that he had confessed to the murder after torture.)

"This is what happens with murders of journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico; they are stigmatized and the true motives of their crimes are never investigated. Instead they create these alternative versions, focusing on something as commonplace as perfume and cosmetics," says Catalina Botero, the former Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

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Botero spoke to Broadly at the release of a new report, Freedom and Resistance, released by the international press freedom group Article 19. The report documents the violence faced by journalists in Mexico, as well as the conditions of impunity that allow these attacks to continue. In 2016 alone, Article 19 documented 426 attacks on members of the press. These numbers include 11 assassinations and 97 attacks committed against female journalists.

Martinez's murder is just one example featured in the report, which shows that there is impunity in 99.75 percent of cases of journalist killings. The vast majority of crimes go unpunished. "These kinds of murders are systematic and Martinez's case allows us to analyze the structural and institutional failures that show that the investigation does not follow a route of justice," says Ana Ruelas, the director of Article 19's Mexico and Central America office. Fourteen reporters have been assassinated in Veracruz since Martinez's death, she adds, including the latter's colleague at Proceso.

Photos commemorating assassinated journalists from a protest. Regina Martinez is on the right.

In March, Miroslava Breach—another muckraking journalist—was assassinated in in broad daylight in Chihuahua. Breach was waiting in her car to take her son to school when assailants shot her eight times, leaving a note attributing the murder to her "being a loud-mouth." For over 20 years, Breach had reported on corruption, politics, and crime in the indigenous Tarahumara region of Chihuahua. She was the third reporter to be assassinated in the country that month.

Two days after her death, dozens of journalists protested in Mexico City under the slogan "Killing reporters doesn't kill the truth." Norte, one of Breach's publications, decided to close down. Editor Oscar Cantu ran a headline that read "Adios" on its final front page, explaining that he could no longer guarantee the safety of his reporters: "I am not prepared for any more of my collaborators to pay [with their lives], nor with my own person." However, Ruelas remains hopeful about achieving justice for Breach, noting that the Attorney General's office is focusing the investigation on her journalistic work in the hope it will throw up some leads.

A protestor in Mexico City decries the murder of journalists.

According to Article 19 and CIMAC, a Mexican women's media organization, attacks on female journalists have increased by over 50 percent in the last four years. While some comprise of acts of horrifying physical violence, many take the form of digital threats and sexual harassment—which can have insiduous repercussions. "Women have been increasingly participating in civic spaces, especially digital forums, but continue to be discriminated [against], often threatened with death or rape," Ruelas says. Reporters have been tweeted images of armed men and decapitated heads for posting about sexual assault and catcalling. One journalist was so spooked that she temporarily fled the country.

Female reporters say they also face sexual harassment from the public officials they are meant to report on. According to Article 19, 53 percent of attacks on journalists come from government employees. Carmen Pizano is unsurprised by this figure. The Zona Franca reporter was harassed while she was interviewing a Mexican politician about his altercation with another official.

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In response, "he repeatedly pinched my cheeks and called me little one," Pizano told Broadly. "He showed a very misogynist attitude towards me, essentially telling me that I should stop thinking, stop asking questions, and just shut up." She later wrote about the harassment for her publication, including a recording of the incident, and issued a formal complaint with the state's human rights commission.

However, many journalists don't go public about violence or harassment. Botero, the former Special Rapporteur, says that the climate of self-censorship in Mexico should not exist under a democratically elected government. "The press is completely besieged by organized crime or public officials in collusion with organized crime, which means that if you denounce human rights violations or corrupt acts, it can cost you your life," she says, before adding, "Basically, what happens in a dictatorship."

According to CIMAC, the threats that reporters receive, especially the ones that are sexual in nature, are a form of psychological violence that "uses threats against women's bodies as a method of control and repression with the aim of silencing the reporter." As Article 19 puts it: "The message is clear: Without truth and without justice, the press will continue to be an easy target for all who attack it."

All photos by Andalusia Knoll Soloff.