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JOURNALISTS' MURDERS HIGHLIGHT TREND OF VIOLENCE AGAINST MEDIA IN LATIN AMERICA

Last week, a bullet-ridden body was found in a garbage dump on the outskirts of Lázaro Cárdenas, a city in the western state of Michoacán in Mexico. It belonged to Miguel Ángel Villagómez Valle, the editor of a Michoacán newspaper. He was last seen leaving the office a day earlier, on 9 October.

Villagómez's paper, "Noticias de Michoacán", covers extensively the issues of drug trafficking, corruption and organised crime - prime reasons to make him a target. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a month before his death, he told his family that he had received a threatening call from the Zetas, former soldiers who worked for the powerful Gulf drug cartel. He warned his family to be alert.

Sadly, his case is just the latest in a series of abductions, disappearances and murders of journalists in the past year in Mexico, now one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas for journalists and media professionals, even surpassing Colombia. During the past eight years, at least 24 journalists and media workers have been killed, eight remain missing and dozens more have been threatened, says ARTICLE 19-Mexico.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Villagómez wasn't the only journalist murdered that day. David García Monroy, a freelancer who worked with the newspapers "La Jornada" and "El Diario de Chihuahua", was one of 11 people killed when professional killers burst into the bar where he was drinking in the northern city of Chihuahua and opened fire.

"These latest murders demonstrate just how urgent is the need to challenge impunity, find the killers and bring them to justice," said IFJ.

Impunity for press crimes constitutes one of the most alarming characteristics of the overall human rights situation in Mexico. Mexico ranks 10th in CPJ's Impunity Index, a list of countries where journalists are slain on a recurring basis and governments consistently fail to solve the crimes.

IFEX members working in Mexico say it's time for the government to get involved. "It is the duty of the state to prevent and investigate such occurrences, to punish their perpetrators and to ensure that victims receive due compensation. Whether the perpetrators are organised crime, drug lords or any other group acting unlawfully or even lawfully, the state is responsible for safeguarding communicators within its jurisdiction," said ARTICLE 19 and the National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS).

Under current law, state authorities generally investigate attacks on journalists. But because of the poor record of successful prosecutions, last month the Mexican Congress promised to present a bill that would make crimes against journalists a federal offence - and ensure federal investigations into journalists' murders.

"If this is not done, press freedom will suffer as investigations of media killings disintegrate in the face of local corruption," said IFJ.

With the government doing little to protect its journalists, press freedom groups have started their own campaign against the brutal and targeted killing of their colleagues. Just a week ago, ARTICLE 19 and the International News Safety Institute (INSI) launched the first ever regional conference - aptly in Mexico City - focusing on the dangers faced by journalists in the Americas. More than 140 delegates got safety guidelines and training from editors and journalists from Latin American hotspots, including drug-ridden Tijuana in Mexico, the frontlines of Colombia and the favelas in Brazil.

Participants created a national media safety group specifically for Mexico to identify practical solutions to the dangers that journalists and media professionals are facing in the country every day. "It is time for journalist organisations, media owners and directors to assume their role in demanding the level of safety needed to truly exercise press freedom," said ARTICLE 19. "The core demands have to come from within."

At its General Assembly earlier this month, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) observed four major press freedom trends in Latin America: the worsening of relations between governments and the press; the inappropriate government use of public funds to pressure and discriminate against the media by granting or withholding advertising; the approval of freedom of information laws, such as in Guatemala and Chile; and more incidents of violence against journalists.

Eight journalists have been killed in Latin America this year alone, says IAPA, which does not include the deaths last week. If the current climate of impunity and drug-related violence in Mexico is anything to go by, Latin America's press freedom situation doesn't look like it will improve anytime soon.

Visit these links

on Villagómez:
- ARTICLE 19/CENCOS: http://tinyurl.com/4lqv5u
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/3pnrrc
- IFJ: http://tinyurl.com/4m4xj4
- Reporters Without Borders: http://tinyurl.com/4r7x4b
- IAPA: http://tinyurl.com/53aujz
on the regional conference:
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/4zdrh6
on recent trends in Latin America:
- IAPA: http://tinyurl.com/4mke6j
(15 October 2008)

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