To Sergio Aguayo — for if one journalist is attacked, we all are.
There’s nothing quite like being a journalist in Mexico. On the one hand, those of us who wake up early enough have the chance every weekday to speak directly to the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, during his morning news conferences, known as 'mañaneras.'
On the other hand, we are constantly under threat: Mexico is one of the deadliest countries in the world for independent reporting. And it isn’t only organized crime that makes our profession so dangerous.
No other president in the world holds an open news conference every weekday like AMLO, as he is known. At the two mañaneras I attended in Mexico City I was able to ask the president tough questions about the alarming number of killings during his first year in office, without fear of censorship. (According to official figures, there were 34,582 murders in 2019, making it the bloodiest year in Mexico’s modern history.)
Of course, AMLO primarily uses these morning news conferences, which can last for more than two hours, for his own purposes — to set his agenda for the day, differentiate himself from his predecessors and deflect criticism. But they are also arenas for free inquiry: Reporters ask whatever they want and the president answers. Everybody is happy.
Sadly for Mexican journalists, the world outside AMLO’s mañaneras isn’t so straightforward. Consider the case of Sergio Aguayo, an academic and editorial writer for the newspaper Reforma. In 2016, Humberto Moreira, a former governor of Coahuila state and former leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, sued Aguayo after he wrote a column accusing Moreira of corruption. In the latest twist in a long-running lawsuit, a judge in Mexico City late last month ordered Aguayo to pay roughly half a million dollars for the “moral damage” caused by his criticism of Moreira.
Though Aguayo became a target of the Mexican government before AMLO came to power, his case highlights a hostility toward journalists that remains pervasive today. The president claims that he has “never used stigmatizing language against journalists.” But that’s simply untrue; he has called us hypocrites, criminals and know-it-alls, and characterized us as “two-faced” and “fifí” (or “posh”), among other things.
Words do matter; they have the real power to influence people. The president’s evident disdain for some members of the press has clearly played a role in motivating his most dedicated followers — known as “AMLOvers” — to attack any who dare to question him on social media, ignoring the fact that it is our job to do precisely that. This, in turn, has put the brave correspondents reporting on drug trafficking and political corruption in an increasingly vulnerable position.
Since López Obrador took office in December 2018, 11 journalists have been killed in Mexico, according to Article 19, a human rights organization. Between 2000 and 2019, 131 journalists were killed, making Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for members of the press.
Even more unnerving is the percentage of those murders that remain unpunished. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Mexico the seventh-worst country in its 2019 Global Impunity Index, putting it in the company of war-torn nations like Somalia, Syria and Iraq. In Mexico, if a journalist is murdered, nothing happens.
Another way to silence journalists in Mexico is to criminalize their work. At a recent mañanera, the professor and Reforma columnist Denise Dresser confronted the president with the fact that a high-ranking member of his Cabinet intended to sponsor a judicial reform package that punishes the press for doing its job, in part by sending journalists to prison for defamation. “That won’t happen,” AMLO said, distancing himself from the proposal. “We are committed to defending our freedom of speech [and] the right to dissent.” Hopefully, these comments will put a stop to any further efforts to intimidate the press.
Journalism in Mexico is not like it used to be, and in some ways things have improved. Long gone is the culture that prevailed from the 1940s through the 1960s that Enrique Serna has portrayed in “El Vendedor de Silencio.” Serna’s novel revolves around the life of the reporter Carlos Denegri, and the unabashed corruption that in those decades connected politicians and the press. Nor is Mexico the same country I left in 1983, when orders to censor the media came directly from the presidential mansion. Besides a handful of rebels, who paid a dear price, few journalists dared to stand up to the corruption.
Today, some of the best and bravest female journalists I know are working in Mexico. As a result of their investigative work over the past two decades, the nation’s most abusive politicians have found themselves with their backs against the wall. Mexico is a better place thanks to these women.
Journalism is not a profession for quiet people. Our job is to act as counterweights to those in power — whoever they may be — and to ask tough questions of the kind that make their hands sweat. López Obrador has to understand that this is nothing personal: Journalism is essential for the preservation of sound democracies. We will continue to question AMLO and his policies, not because we wish our nation any harm, but because Mexico deserves incisive criticism and a real debate of ideas.
The president can and should do more to protect journalists and their work, and changing the language he uses to talk about the press during his news conferences would be a good place to start. He must also ensure that his administration does not introduce bills that criminalize journalists who criticize those in power. Disagreements, even strong ones, are part of any functioning democracy, and should not be construed as personal attacks.
It’s been incredibly refreshing to witness the wave of solidarity that has risen up in support of my colleague Sergio Aguayo, particularly given the cruelty that so many journalists normally face in Mexico.
You are not alone, Sergio. You are not alone.