Rubén Espinosa and the Death of Free Speech in Mexico

Hundreds of Mexicans took to the streets to protest the murder of Rubén Espinosa. (kaosenlared)
Hundreds of Mexicans took to the streets to protest the murder of Rubén Espinosa. (kaosenlared)

EspañolThe Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, author of Open Veins of Latin America, once said that “along with ignorance, a tool the powerful take advantage of is fear.”

Galeano’s insight perfectly encapsulates the reason why hundreds of journalists in Mexico find themselves in such a dire situation. These days, exercising freedoms of speech and press can get you killed, and at a time when these rights are needed most.

On Sunday, August 2, three days after authorities found photojournalist Rubén Espinosa dead in a Mexico City apartment, thousands of citizens demonstrated in eight cities across the country to demand justice.

“#ALERT Rubén Espinosa murdered in Mexico City; he had left Veracruz over threats.”

According to Mexico City prosecutor Rodolfo Ríos Garza, four women were also killed along with Espinosa. All five received 9mm shots to the head and had “multiple abrasions all over their bodies.”

In its World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Mexico 148 out of 180 nations, calling it “the western hemisphere’s deadliest country for journalists in 2014 (for murders directly linked to media work).”

Even though all lines of investigation remain open — including threats he received for his work in Veracruz — it is difficult to imagine that protection for journalists can improve in Mexico when Espinosa died as an exile in his own country.

Deadly Veracruz

“Death came to Veracruz to stay,” the 31-year-old Espinosa explained in an interview with SinEmbargo on July 1, a month before he was killed.

After being harassed by three unknown individuals in Xalapa, Veracruz, Espinosa left an eight-year career behind him, along with his belongings and his dog, to take refuge at the Mexican capital.

Veracruz is the most dangerous Mexican state for journalists: 16 have been killed since 2000 and four have disappeared.

Politicians and press workers with ties to the government labelled Espinosa a “guerrilla fighter.” Most people remember him for a photograph he took of Veracruz’s governor, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In the photo, Governor Javier Duarte appears wearing a police cap, a defying look in his eyes, and his belly hanging out of the top of his trousers.

Mexican investigative magazine Proceso put it on the cover of their issue devoted to murdered journalists in Veracruz, on the third anniversary of Regina Martínez‘s assassination.

The magazine caused a great stir and became one of their top-selling issues. The cover read: “Veracruz, a Lawless State.”

“Rubén Espinosa, another (Proceso) journalist murdered under the Javier Duarte regime. How many more?”

The picture earned Espinosa the governor’s enmity. In 2012, government representatives targeted him for taking pictures during a student protest.

A Veracruz government representative approached Espinosa and told him to “stop taking pictures if you don’t want to end up like Regina,” referring to the Proceso crime reporter strangled to death inside her home in Xilapa.

The official story was that a thief broke into her house. Espinosa investigated Regina Martínez’s death, but the state government dismissed his claims that a corruption scheme in Veracruz was behind it.

According to Proceso, on another occasion Governor Duarte himself offered Espinosa money to drop charges against state policemen who had beaten him.

Speaking Truth to Power

For Espinosa, his duty was clear. While many of his colleagues uncritically repeated the official version, offering their services to whatever hand that fed them, Espinosa pushed forward, armed with his ethics and his camera.

“I have never received a single peso, and I don’t intend to do so,” he told SinEmbargo in July.

While the circumstances surrounding the victims’ deaths are resolved — if that can ever truly happen — we must not forget that independent journalism is a powerful check to those in power.

Espinosa, the first Mexican journalist killed in domestic exile, is symptomatic of the violence gripping the nation.

Article 19, a Mexican free-speech advocacy group, says Mexico City is no longer a safe place for displaced journalists running away from violence and intimidation.

The organization reports that as of the end of July, 37 journalists have fled Veracruz due to threats from organized crime and local officials.

Only authoritarianism and further tragedies can result from restrictions on freedom of speech and press.

Unfortunately, it is journalists who end up paying with their lives to show us the truth. If anything, this crisis should lead us to question the state’s own excesses in its apparent inability to contain violence.

We cannot, must not, let fear and ignorance reign.

Translated by Vanessa Arita.

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