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Some good news for Mexican journalism

Independent investigative reporters are risking the dangers to expose public corruption in the court of public opinion.
Katherine Corcoran is Hewlett Fellow for Public Policy at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame.
A protest in Mexico City over the death of journalist Javier Valdez, gunned down by unknown assailants in Culiacan, in Sinaloa state, Mexico in May 2017 Crédito: Reuters

It may seem odd to talk about good news with regard to Mexican journalism.

Another journalist was gunned down recently in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, the third in the country in three months. This year is on track to be - like 2017 - one of the deadliest for Mexico, last year the most dangerous non-war country for journalists in the world.

By all counts, the violence against and government harassment of the working press are only getting worse.

But there is one highlight: The small but growing cadre of independent investigative reporters who are risking the dangers to expose public corruption too extreme and well-documented to ignore. With the country’s daunting level of impunity, most of these revelations go unprosecuted. But they’re being tried and won in the court of public opinion.

“Independent journalism is Mexico is rapidly professionalizing, driven by motivated, talented and rigorous reporters,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists, though he adds the overall situation continues to be very grave. “People are more aware of corruption right now … the court of public opinion is better informed.”

Armed with new transparency laws and better training, Mexican journalists create projects and painstakingly track down documents that many still don’t realize are part of the public record. Reporters post their interviews and supporting documents online, giving the public and other media the opportunity to view the evidence first hand.

“The tools have changed substantially,” said Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab, who won a Pulitzer Prize documenting massive bribes paid by Walmart Mexico to build at will and corner the discount store market. “Now you have a webpage where you can look where a federal prisoner is housed, or know the owner of a license plate in a highway accident, or see corporation contracts, or use a national database of businesses … before it was all a black hole.”

This is a radical change from the past, when the press was mostly controlled by the government under the PRI. Their investigative scoops were recordings or documents leaked by politicians to smear opponents.

In one recent investigation, Xanic and her colleagues at the investigative reporting consortium, Quinto Elemento Lab, found sworn testimony that construction giant Odebrecht paid $10 million in bribes to Emilio Lozoya, former head of the state oil company, Pemex, under President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Another investigative reporting group under the civil society organization Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity documented more than $3 million in transfers to a Lozoya-linked company when he served as a top official in Pena Nieto’s 2012 presidential campaign.

While politicians and executives across Latin America have been jailed in the Odebrecht bribery scandal, a former Mexican prosecutor says he was fired for looking into the case. But corruption is a major issue in the upcoming presidential election, and the PRI, ruling part of Peña Nieto and Lozoya, is running dead last.

The same happened in 2016 with the “empresas fantasmas,” or ghost companies set up by the administration of Veracruz ex-Gov. Javier Duarte to funnel public money to private pockets.

Reporter Arturo Angel for the online news site Animal Politico, sifted through articles of incorporation and bids, checking addresses and finding that contractors receiving funds to help victims of natural disasters and the poor were completely fake.

After the scandal broke, the PRI, Duarte’s party, was voted out of power for the first time in 80 years. Duarte and several other officials of his administration sit in jail.

The seminal case was the “Casa Blanca,” Peña Nieto’s personal home, uncovered by an investigative reporters working for Carmen Arestegui. They found it was built and owned by a contractor who had received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state projects under Pena Nieto.

Peña Nieto was exonerated, while Aristegui lost her job as the No. 1 morning radio talk show host. But his administration, which tried to portray itself as modern and distant from the corruption of the old PRI, never recovered.

The environment for doing such work remains hostile. The New York Times reported last year that Aristegui, other journalists and human rights advocates had their cell phones infiltrated with Pegasus, an Israeli software sold only to governments to spy on criminals and terrorists. The Mexican government denied using the software on its critics.

Javier Garza, a long-time Coahuila news editor, radio commentator and free press advocate, says such reporting won’t have real impact as long as Mexico maintains weak state.

“The institutions aren’t functioning to punish this behavior,” Garza said. “As they say about Watergate, the Washington Post didn’t prosecute Richard Nixon … it was the institutions, such as the Congress and special prosecutor, that reacted to the impact of what the press had revealed and took it forward.”