With Mexico being one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to practice journalism, one might assume that it would be a government priority to help protect those who work in the profession.
However, no new funds were allocated to the Fund for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists this year: money left over from last year’s budget was deemed to be sufficient.
The fund finances a protection scheme created in 2012 and which currently supports 509 people through a range of security measures including bodyguards, police patrols, self-protection manuals and mobile telephone panic buttons to alert authorities to imminent threats.
Patricia Colchero, who heads up the Human Rights Defense Unit in the Interior Secretariat, attributed the decision to roll over last year’s funds to “a lack of knowledge about the needs of the scheme.”
However, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) attributes the shortfall to a lack of political will. The organization’s Mexican representative, Balbina Flores, says, “It’s a very unfortunate situation.”
Ana Ruelas, the Mexican director of Article 19, a human rights organization focusing on the defense and promotion of freedom of expression, echoed that sentiment saying, “If there is no budget, it is because the murder of journalists is not a public problem.”
The organization’s 2016 report indicated that protection mechanisms have not proven to be a guarantee against aggression towards the press and consequently many reporters have been dissuaded from using them.
Noé Zavaleta, Veracruz correspondent for the magazine Proceso, told the news agency AFP that the scheme under which he is currently protected has shown its limitations because of a lack of funds.
He recounts that during six months that he had bodyguards, they complained about not having bulletproof vests or a better vehicle.
Neither was authorized due to budgetary constraints and one of his former bodyguards was killed in March this year during an attack on independent journalist Julio Gómez.
“In the end, even with bodyguards you are not safe,” he lamented.
At an April 6 meeting with members of a Chamber of Deputies commission that monitors aggression towards journalists, Colchero warned that no new funds had been allocated to the protection scheme this year.
Upon hearing that, one Deputy responded, “It’s unbelievable that the fund is not receiving a budget this year from the federal government. It truly borders on crazy because that’s how the problem progresses and protection doesn’t go ahead like it should.”
Colchero replied that at the end of 2016 “they saw a purse of about 200 million (US $10.6 million) and said that’s enough.”
The scheme is also supported by the European Union and USAID, the U.S. international development agency.
Colchero asked the committee if it could grant a budget increase, expecting that the remaining funds would run out between September and October.
But a Deputy told her that only the executive branch could make a budget readjustment.
The Special Office for Crimes against Freedom of Expression has also seen its budget slashed during President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, from 38 million pesos in 2013 to 18.4 million this year.
During 2016, an average of 10 journalists were added to the protection scheme per month but that has doubled in 2017 and shows no sign of abating.
The scheme is currently costing 16 million pesos a month but is expected to rise soon to 20 million.
Colchero stressed that none of the journalists killed since the introduction of the protection scheme was covered by it at the time of their deaths.
One Deputy, Exaltación Gonzalez, said “in the next [budget] analysis we have to tighten the screws and make them designate resources to the protection scheme.”
Meanwhile, at least in words, Peña Nieto maintains that he is more committed than ever to freedom of speech and the protection of journalists.
Following a security cabinet meeting yesterday, he announced a range of “extraordinary measures” designed to protect journalists and human rights defenders.
They are, in summary:
• Strengthen the federal structure and budget assigned to protect journalists.
• Establish a nationally coordinated scheme to reduce situations of risk to journalists.
• Increase staff numbers at the government department that deals with crimes against freedom of expression.
• Establish a dialogue with civil society and relevant unions to increase collaboration and confidence.
• Ensure that current investigations are carried out with the right to truth and access to justice.
• Ensure cooperation between local and federal authorities on human rights-related crimes.
• Support states to create units or public ministries that specialize in freedom of expression matters.
• Create approved protocols to investigate crimes against freedom of expression.
Six journalists have already been killed in 2017. The most recent was Javier Valdez, assassinated on Monday in Culiacán, Sinaloa.
Source: Milenio (sp)