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Journalism, a most deadly profession

An activist holds up a picture of photojournalist Ruben Espinosa during a protest against his murder at the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City, Mexico August 2, 2015
An activist holds up a picture of photojournalist Ruben Espinosa during a protest against his murder at the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City, Mexico August 2, 2015

REUTERS/Henry Romero

This statement was originally published on pen.org on 20 August 2015.

On July 31, Ruben Espinosa was found bound, tortured, and killed in Mexico City. Espinosa, a seasoned photojournalist who captured instances of police brutality, had fled his home in Veracruz state to the capital, the last supposed “safe zone” for journalists in Mexico, in early June. Police speculate that Espinosa's murder alongside human rights activist Nadia Vera (also from Veracruz) and three other women present in the apartment was motivated by robbery. But investigators found nothing missing from the apartment.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, targeted killings of journalists in relation to their work have risen sharply in the last decade. And since 1992, 87% of 1,141 journalist murders across the globe have been committed with complete impunity; in Mexico that number is closer to 99% for crimes committed against journalists.

Many people believe that official state corruption lies behind Espinosa's brutal murder. Espinosa had taken an unflattering picture of Veracruz governor Javier Duarte that appeared on the cover of Proceso magazine with the headline: “Veracruz: State with No Law.” According to Espinosa, the cover infuriated Duarte and prompted a massive buy-out of the issue in an effort to prevent it from reaching the general public. Espinosa and his colleagues reported that Espinosa had since been subject of harassment under Duarte.

Since Duarte took power in 2010, 14 journalists have been murdered and three disappeared in Veracruz. On June 30, 2015, Duarte made a thinly veiled threat that journalists should “behave,” signaling that investigative reporting was not welcome in the state. Duarte claimed the warning targeted journalists with ties to drug cartels and other criminals, noting “free expression shouldn't be confused with providing the criminals with a voice via media.” The governor was questioned in relation to the murders on August 11 by Mexico City's prosecutor's office in response to worldwide protests over the handling of the murder investigation.

National and local governments have long penalized journalists whose views they disfavor. Gao Yu, a Chinese investigative journalist, was recently sentenced to seven years in jail for “leaking state secrets.” Yu is one of 44 journalists currently imprisoned in China—more than in any other country. The 71-year-old suffers from serious and chronic health problems for which international advocacy groups are concerned she is not receiving adequate medical care in jail. Her merciless conviction carries on a long tradition in China of state violence against and imprisonment of journalists for expression deemed threatening to the ruling Communist Party. Journalist, member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and 2008 recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award Yang Tongyang, for example, was jailed in China from 1990-2000 and is now serving a second jail term of 12 years for his criticism of the Party and his calls for the release of other jailed writers. Official Chinese censors continue to impose heavy restrictions on the topics that journalists can cover in the country, perpetuating the worldwide trend of governments' intentional or complicit involvement in violations of press freedom.

But a new and deadly combination of ineffective protections for media workers, impunity for perpetrators, and official corruption is increasingly silencing journalists around the world. The role of governments in violence against journalists like Espinosa has bourgeoned in recent years, with 13% of journalists' murders in 2015 linked to government officials, compared to only 8% in 2012.

In India, government officials have been repeatedly incriminated in attacks on the media. The influence of local politicians and their strong ties to criminals fueled by widespread corruption—which the federal government has made few attempts to combat on a local level—obscure or prevent investigations initiated by in-state parties or third-party officials. Sandeep Kothari, a local correspondent for a Hindi-language newspaper, was investigating illegal mining and land grabs committed by local mafia and other crime rings in his home state of Madhya Pradesh. He had received constant threats and faced multiple lawsuits for his work, but the local government provided no protections for Kothari, nor did it investigate the allegations he reported. On June 19, 2015, Kothari was abducted by three men tied to illegal mining activities and his charred remains were found the following evening in the neighboring state of Maharashtra. State police have undertaken Kothari's case, but protesters claim that local corruption will make a thorough and impartial investigation impossible. Another Indian journalist, Jagendra Singh, was burned alive after publishing allegations of corruption against a local politician, Ram Murti Verma. Verma and a group of police officers were named by Singh in a police report before his murder.

The cases of Ruben Espinosa, Gao Yu, and Sandeep Kothari demonstrate the worrying power of governments to crush freedom of expression. Methods of silencing journalists have moved beyond rigged judicial systems to extralegal harassment, attack, and even murder. These methods indicate the insidious and escalating problem of governments' abuse of power that threaten not only the lives of journalists, but broader society's access to information.

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