Mexico: Obrador’s attacks on freedom reach new heights

In a world where there are too many tyrants and our politics seems increasingly divisive it is all too easy to look away, to turn off the news, to refuse to engage.

Yet there is a responsibility on all of us to bear witness. To hear people’s stories and to stand with those dissidents who are brave enough to speak truth to power.

In recent weeks, we have been reminded of how important this is, in countries that don’t always dominate the headlines.

In the ongoing battle for genuine freedom of expression in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s relentless attacks on journalists and democratic institutions have reached alarming heights, posing a severe threat to press freedom and democracy in the country.

The latest incident involved an investigation by a New York Times journalist into the Obrador administration’s alleged connections with drug cartels. The report led to Obrador sharing the journalist’s telephone number during a televised press conference  – this is a blatant attack on freedom of the press. By exposing a journalist to potential harm, Obrador is sending a chilling message to the media: report critically at your own risk.

These actions would be bad enough – but are compounded by Obrador’s proposals to overhaul democratic institutions, such as the election authority INE and the Supreme Court. Obrador is seemingly seeking to consolidate power and the democratic checks and balances which exist in any healthy democracy.

His proposal to directly elect both board members of the INE and Supreme Court judges threatens to politicise these institutions and erode their independence. Civil society groups, academics, and the opposition have rightly warned that such changes would undermine the very foundation of democracy in Mexico.

The widespread protests that erupted last Sunday, with thousands of Mexicans taking to the streets to reject Obrador’s vision, are a testament to the growing dissatisfaction with his authoritarian tendencies and for me a celebration of freedom of expression against one of the world’s less well known tyrants.

Obrador was faced by a sea of pink — the colour of INE’s logo — and thousands of national flags demonstrating a united front against the erosion of the democratic principles which the people of Mexico seem rightly reluctant to abandon.

I stand with the people of Mexico who will not bend to a tyrant. Obrador seeks to be a strong man – his actions show us exactly what he is a weak man – afraid of his citizens.

At the beginning of last year Obrador was voted Tyrant of the Year 2022 in Index on Censorship’s public vote. This recognition was based on his appalling record on media freedom. His response to our public poll was to attack the messenger rather than consider the message – again at a televised press conference.

Behind each action taken by Obrador to consolidate power is a victim. It may be a journalist, an independent member of the judiciary or an observer of Mexico’s elections. Each one embodies the democratic rights that we hold dear. Each of them wants to live in a thriving Mexico that can stand proud in its belief in freedom of expression for all. I stand in solidarity with the journalists and citizens of Mexico who are bravely speaking out against censorship and authoritarianism. I stand with those people exposing his authoritarian nature. And I stand with those who bravely seek to speak truth to power.

Index will continue to shine a spotlight on Obrador’s assault on freedom of expression because the future of Mexico’s democracy demands our attention.

Contents – Express yourself: Overcoming neurodiversity stereotypes

Contents

The Summer 2023 issue of Index looks at neurodiversity, the term coined in the late 1990s to identify and promote the positives of variation in human thinking which has become more widely used in the past few years. Are old stereotypes still rife? Has the perception of neurodiversity improved? If not, was this because of censorship? Using neurodivergent voices, we wanted to know about this in a global context.

The majority of the articles are written by neurodivergent people, as we wanted to put their voices front and centre. Many said they did have more of a voice, awareness had shot up and the word “neurodiversity” empowered and welcomed a growth in onscreen representation. However, at the same time it was clear that conversations around neurodiversity were playing out along society’s current fault-lines and were far from immune.

Up Front

Mind matters, by Jemimah Seinfeld: The term neurodiversity has positively challenged how we approach our minds. Has it done enough?

The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest in free expression news, from an explainer on Sudan to a cha-cha-cha starring Meghan and King Charles.

Features

Bars can't stop a bestseller, by Kaya Genç: Fiction is finding its way out of a Turkish prison, says former presidential hopeful and bestselling writer
Selahattin Demirtaş.

Don't mention femicide, by Chris Havler-Barrett: Murdered women are an inconvenience for Mexico’s president.

This is no joke, by Qian Gong and Jian Xu: The treatment of China’s comedians is no laughing matter.

Silent Disco, by Andrew Mambondiyani: Politicians are purging playlists in Zimbabwe, and musicians are speaking out.

When the Russians came, by Alina Smutko, Taras Ibragimov and Aliona Savchuk: The view from inside occupied Crimea, through the cameras of photographers banned by the Kremlin.

The language of war and peace, by JP O’Malley: Kremlin-declared “Russophobe foreign agent and traitor” Mikhail Shishkin lays out the impossible choices for Russians.

Writer's block, by Stacey Tsui: Hong Kong’s journalists are making themselves heard, thanks to blockchain technology.

The Russians risking it all, by Katie Dancey-Downs: Forced to sing songs and labelled as extremists, anti-war Russians are finding creative ways to take a stand.

The 'truth' is in the tea, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Spilling the tea on a London venue, which found itself in hot water due to a far-right speaker.

Waiting for China's tap on the shoulder, by Chu Yang: However far they travel, there’s no safe haven for journalists and academics who criticise China.

When the old fox walks the tightrope, by Danson Kahyana: An interview with Stella Nyanzi on Uganda’s latest anti-LGBTQ+ law.

Would the media lie to you?, by Ali Latifi: Fake news is flourishing in Afghanistan, in ways people might not expect.

Britain's Holocaust island, by Martin Bright: Confronting Britain’s painful secret, and why we must acknowledge what happened on Nazi-occupied Alderney.

The thorn in Vietnam's civil society side, by Thiện Việt: Thiện Việt: Responding to mass suppression with well-organised disruption.

Special Report: Express yoruself: Overcoming neurodiversity stereotypes

Not a slur, by Nick Ransom: What’s in a word? Exploring representation, and the power of the term “neurodiversity” to divide or unite.

Sit down, shut up, by Katharine P Beals: The speech of autistic non-speakers is being hijacked.

Fake it till you break it, by Morgan Barbour: Social media influencers are putting dissociative identity disorder in the spotlight, but some are accused of faking it.

Weaponising difference, by Simone Dias Marques: Ableist slurs in Brazil are equating neurodivergence with criminality.

Autism on screen is gonna be okay, by Katie Dancey-Downs: The Rain Man days are over. Everything’s Gonna Be Okay star Lillian Carrier digs into autism on screen.

Raising Malaysia's roof, by Francis Clarke: In a comedy club in Malaysia’s capital stand up is where people open up, says comedian Juliana Heng.

Living in the Shadows, by Ashley Gjøvik: When successful camouflage has a lasting impact.

Nigeria's crucible, by Ugonna-Ora Owoh: Between silence and lack of understanding, Nigeria’s neurodiverse are being mistreated.

My autism is not a lie, by Meltem Arikan: An autism diagnosis at 52 liberated a dissident playwright, but there’s no space for her truth in Turkey.

Comment

Lived experience, to a point, by Julian Baggini: When it comes to cultural debates, whose expertise carries the most weight?

France: On the road to illiberalism? by Jean-Paul Marthoz: Waving au revoir to the right to criticise.

Monitoring terrorists, gangs - and historians, by Andrew Lownie: The researcher topping the watchlist on his majesty’s secret service.

We are all dissidents, by Ruth Anderson: Calls to disassociate from certain dissidents due to their country of birth are toxic and must be challenged.

Culture

Manuscripts don't burn, by Rebecca Ruth Gould: Honouring the writers silenced by execution in Georgia, and unmuzzling their voices.

Obscenely familiar, by Marc Nash: A book arguing for legalised homosexuality is the spark for a fiction rooted in true events.

A truly graphic tale, by Taha Siddiqui and Zofeen T Ebrahim: A new graphic novel lays bare life on Pakistan’s kill list, finding atheism and a blasphemous tattoo.

A censored day? by Kaya Genç: Unravelling the questions that plague the censor, in a new short story from the Turkish author.

Poetry's peacebuilding tentacles, by Natasha Tripney: Literature has proven its powers of peace over the last decade in Kosovo.

Palestine: I still have hope, by Bassem Eid: Turning to Israel and Palestine, where an activist believes the international community is complicit in the conflict.

In Mexico, a journalist is attacked every 13 hours. The government is to blame

Mexico is torn between two opposing forces. On one side are the balaclava-clad sicarios and cartels of popular culture. On the other, a government that is becoming ever more obsessed with the appearance of power and glory. The army has been deployed to the streets across the country. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador talks frequently about subverting the constitution to allow his re-election.

For journalists, the imperative to report the truth has never been stronger. There are too many stories to tell - the realities of crime – the institutional corruption that has mired Mexico for some many years – the inefficiency of the flagship ‘Fourth Transformation’ that the current government has staked its reputation on.

Those involved in these stories, however, do not want them to be told. 2022 was one of the deadliest years on record for journalists in Mexico, with 12 murders, and was the most violent with 696 attacks recorded, according to a new report from Article 19. The overwhelming majority of these attacks will go unsolved. Many will never even be investigated.

Forty-two percent of the documented attacks are committed by state actors, the report says.

Nowhere are the problems facing journalists more apparent than in Ecatepec – a sprawling shanty town of squat, concrete dwellings, precariously perched on the mountainsides that surround the capital. Here, the contempt for the press is laid bare. Local journalists are targeted. Foreign journalists are threatened. Here, organised crime and governance go hand in hand.

Cody Copeland, a US journalist working in Mexico, attended a rally in the district, when he discovered that officials from the ruling Morena party in attendance were wearing medallions of Santa Muerte – the patron saint of cartels. The mayor himself was not a career politician, but, according to the newspaper Reforma, a former leader of a band of pirate taxis. Many fear criminal activities are now being carried out in an official capacity.

When questioned about why Ecatepec had seen no running water in five months, Copeland was violently removed from the press conference. Later, he said, a woman from the Morena party attempted to lure him away with promises of an exclusive interview – but residents intervened, suspecting he was likely to be attacked, and drove him away to safety, back in the city.

Copeland believes it is likely that his equipment would have been destroyed if he had been detained.

The greatest dangers are faced by those covering local affairs – where they are likely to be people known in their community. Reporters here are often targeted, and many are unable to leave their homes in fear of reprisals.

Carlos Flores is a local reporter, who lives in Ecatepec. Despite the fact reporting here has always been hard, he feels that under Morena things have only got worse.

“The current government we have is even harder than the previous ones. They are very tight-lipped. With previous governments, you still had some freedom [to report], but with the current one, I feel there are no guarantees for journalism – not in Ecatepec or anywhere else in the republic,” Flores said.

Flores has been attacked three times in recent years – twice, he said, by government forces.

When Flores is at the scene of a crime, police will often tell families not to speak to journalists – obscuring the extent to which the government has failed to handle crime in the area. If he persists, Flores explains, he is likely to be removed by police, and have his equipment destroyed.

President Obrador has frequently dismissed the idea of links between criminal gangs and government, as well as denying claims that large parts of Mexico being controlled by cartels and rubbishing reports that his government spies on activists, journalists and opponents. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Just last week, for example, it was confirmed that his government had monitored the phone of a human rights activist (Obrador said this was lawful, part of a probe into a suspected cartel member).

As for government support for the press, this is available but is largely funnelled into media conglomerates seen as friendly to Morena – La Jornada, Televisa and TV Azteca. These outlets are safe – allowing the appearance of supporting the press without risking serious adverse coverage or investigation.

To make matters worse, Obrador is currently embroiled in a battle to criminalise dissent against the government during election periods. While these reforms appear to have been defeated for now, his attempts to consolidate power are often directed at those who he believes to be naysayers – in particular journalists who are critical of his record.

It is not uncommon for Obrador to use his daily press conference to target individual journalists he believes have wronged him, and to decry outlets that have slighted him as pawns of the opposition, including Index on Censorship. This delegitimisation of the media is accepted by many of his supporters, who gleefully join him in deriding attempts to expose wrongdoing in an administration that appears – despite pleas to the contrary - as corrupt as those that came before.

The presidential elections next year will likely see a new Morena candidate elected to power.  The question for Mexico is – will they value freedom of the press?

The women who paid the ultimate price

Wednesday marked International Women’s Day, an opportunity to reflect upon the role of women in society. In the midst of a war in Europe and global economic crisis it is easy to focus on the immediate, on the current existential crisis, but there is an onus on us to remember what is happening further afield.

On Wednesday for International Women’s Day I addressed students on behalf of the Anne Frank Trust. I highlighted the importance of not only telling women's stories but also the power of amplifying their lived experiences, wherever they may be. Collectively we all made a promise that this week - and I hope in future weeks - we would seek to tell the stories of the women who have made a mark and ensure that the world knows their names.

I seek to deliver on that promise.

I am proud to be the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, a charity which endeavours to provide a voice to the persecuted, which campaigns for freedom of expression around the world. I work daily with dissidents who risk everything to change their societies and their communities for the better. Men and women. But today I would like to highlight the names of some of those women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the last year for the supposed “crime” of doing something we take for granted every day - using the human right of freedom of expression.

  • Deborah Samuel - a student brutally murdered in Nigeria after being accused of blasphemy on an academic social media platform.

  • Nokuthula Mabaso - a leading woman human rights defender in South Africa and leader of the eKhenana Commune. She was assassinated outside of her home, in front of her children.

  • Shireen Abu Akleh - a veteran Palestinian-American correspondent for Al Jazeera who was killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in the West Bank.

  • Jhannah Villegas - a local journalist in the Philippines was killed at her home. The police believe this was linked to her work.

  • Francisca Sandoval - a local Chilean journalist was murdered, and several others hurt when gunmen opened fire on a Workers’ Day demonstration.

  • Mahsa Amini  - a name all too familiar to us, as her murder inspired a peaceful revolution which continues to this day. Murdered by the Iranian morality police for “inappropriate attire”.

  • Oksana Baulina - a Russian journalist killed during shelling by Russian forces in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

  • Oksana Haidar - a 54-year-old Ukrainian journalist and blogger better known under the pseudonym “Ruda Pani”, killed by Russian artillery, northeast of Kyiv.

  • Oleksandra Kuvshynova - a Ukrainian producer who was killed outside of Kyiv, while working with Fox News.

  • Petronella Baloyi - a South African land and women human rights defender gunned down while in her home.

  • Yessenia Mollinedo Falconi, a Mexican journalist who was the founder and editor of El Veraz. A crime and security correspondent, she received a death threat a fortnight before she was shot. She was killed alongside her colleague Sheila Johana García Olivera

  • Vira Hyrych - a journalist for Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian service, killed by Russian shelling.

  • Yeimi Chocué Camayo - an Indigenous women’s rights activist, killed in Columbia when returning to her house.

  • Cielo Rujeles - wife of social leader Sócrates Sevillano, shot and killed alongside her husband in Colombia.

  • Luz Angelina Quijano Poveda - a delegate of the Community Action Board in Punta Betín, Colombia, murdered at her home.

  • Sandra Patricia Montenegro - a PE teacher and social leader was shot and killed in front of her students in Colombia.

  • Melissa Núñez - a transgender activist shot dead by armed men in Honduras.

  • María del Carmen Vázquez - a Mexican activist and member of the Missing Persons of Pénjamo, murdered by two men at her home in. She was looking for her son who disappeared last summer.

  • Blanca Esmeralda Gallardo - activist and member of the Collective Voice of the Missing in Puebla, who was assassinated on the side of the highway in Mexico as she waited for a bus to take her to work. She was searching for her 22-year-old daughter who vanished in 2021.

  • Yermy Chocue Camayo - treasurer of the Chimborazo indigenous reservation in Colombia, and human rights defender, killed as she headed home.

  • Dilia Contreras - an experienced presenter for RCN Radio in Columbia, shot dead in a car alongside her colleague Leiner Montero after covering a festival in a local village.

  • Edilsan Andrade - a Colombian social leader and local politician, shot and killed in the presence of one of her children.

  • Jesusita Moreno, aka Doña Tuta - a human rights activist who defended Afro-Colombian community rights. Facing threats against her life, she was assassinated whilst at her son's birthday party.

  • Maria Piedad Aguirre - a Colombian social leader who was a defender of black communities, violently murdered with a machete; she was found at home by one of her grandchildren.

  • Elizabeth Mendoza - social leader, was shot and killed in her home in Colombia.  Her husband, son and nephew were also murdered.

  • María José Arciniegas Salinas - a Colombian indigenous human rights defender, assassinated by armed men who said they belonged to the Comandos de la Frontera group.

  • Shaina Vanessa Pretel Gómez - who was known among the LGBTIQ+ community for her activism, including work to establish safe spaces for homeless people and a passion for the arts, was shot dead early in the morning by a suspect on a motorbike.

  • Rosa Elena Celix Guañarita - a Colombian human rights defender was shot while socialising with friends.

  • Mariela Reyes Montenegro - a leader of the Union of Workers and Employees of Public Services was murdered in Colombia.

  • Alba Bermeo Puin - an indigenous leader and environmental defender in Ecuador was murdered when five months pregnant.

  • Mursal Nabizada - a former female member of Afghanistan's parliament and women’s rights campaigner murdered at her home.

This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination. Compiling the names and profiles of women who have been killed as a result of their right to exercise freedom of expression is almost impossible, not least because of the nature of the repressive regimes which too many people live under. But every name represents thousands of others who day in, day out put their lives at risk to speak truth to power. They were mothers, grandmothers, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, sisters, aunts, friends, partners, wives.

To their families, they were the centre of the world. To us, today, their stories bring fear and inspiration in equal measure. They are heroes whose bravery we should all seek to emulate.