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?

Tyrant of the year 2022 named

It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for – the announcement of the annual Tyrant of the Year competition winner. While competition was tough, one leader surged ahead, by a mile in fact. Our Tyrant of the Year for 2022 is Andrés Manuel López Obrador from Mexico. López Obrador presides over a country which has the dubious honour of being the country in which more journalists were killed last year than any other. It is also the country ranked as the most dangerous place to be an environmental defender, according to Global Witness. The number of kidnappings, assaults and arrests under his watch has been huge. Mexico’s climate of impunity makes it possible. López Obrador has also cosied up to the military and Donald Trump and lashed out at women, NGOs and the New York Times. Forbes called López Obrador “a human rights disaster”.

Index policy and campaigns officer Nik Williams, who nominated Obrador for the award, said, “The high number of votes for López Obrador is testament to the structural threats to free expression in Mexico that has made it the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, outside of a warzone. For the good of journalists, their families and colleagues, as well as the broader Mexican society, we hope Obrador takes the steps necessary to protect media freedom. Only then will this be the first and last time he is voted Tyrant of the Year.”

We covered Mexico a lot in the years under his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto. We noted with alarm the escalation of violence against journalists in particular. When López Obrador came to power in 2018, he did so with promises to pull the country out of a dastardly spiral of crime, corruption and inequality. People were cynical about these pledges at the time and it’s a shame to see their cynicism was correct. Mexico remains very much on the Index radar as a result and we will continue to cover the country in our magazine and online.

Read about all the shortlisted leaders here.

Who is 2022’s Tyrant of the Year?

At the end of every year, Index on Censorship launches a campaign to focus attention on human rights defenders, dissidents, artists and journalists who have been in the news headlines because their freedom of expression has been suppressed during the past twelve months. As well as this we focus on the authoritarian leaders who have been silencing their opponents.

Last year, we asked for your help in identifying 2021's Tyrant of the Year and you responded in your thousands. The 2021 winner, way ahead of a crowded field, was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by China’s Xi Jinping and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad .

The polls are now open for the title of 2022 Tyrant of the Year and we are focusing on 12 leaders from around the globe who have done more during the past 12 months than other despots to win this dubious accolade.

Click on those in our rogues' gallery below to find out why the Index on Censorship team believe each one should be named Tyrant of the Year and then click on the form at the bottom of those pages to cast your vote. The closing date is Monday 9 January 2023.



Tyrant of the year 2022: Xi Jinping, China

Tyrant of the year 2022: Xi Jinping, China

Xi Jinping has excelled with his tyrant credentials this year. Earlier this year, a controversial United Nations‘ report said that “serious human rights violations” have been committed in Xinjiang while Xi’s government is behind moves to repress Uyghurs living in...

Tyrant of the year 2022: Vladimir Putin, Russia

Tyrant of the year 2022: Vladimir Putin, Russia

Vladmir Vladimirovich Putin is the tyrant’s tyrant in more ways than one. Over the two decades he has dominated Russian politics as president and prime minister, he has set a new standard in the brutal oppression of opponents at home and abroad. His illegal invasion...

Tyrant of the year 2022: Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar

Tyrant of the year 2022: Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar

The atrocious worker conditions and contempt for basic human rights in Qatar have certainly been on our minds over the last year. However, relatively little attention has been paid to the man pulling the strings.  “Al Thani holds a relatively lower profile than his...

Tyrant of the year 2022: Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia

Tyrant of the year 2022: Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia

“Mohammed bin Salman should be awarded the title of ‘tyrant of the year’ not only because of his track record of censorship and suppression, but also because of the potential for violent tyranny to come” says Emma Sandvik Ling, partnerships and fundraising manager at...

Tyrant of the year 2022: Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar

Tyrant of the year 2022: Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar

“As a child Aung San Suu Kyi was a celebrated heroine in my family home and Myanmar, an authoritarian regime determined to squash democracy.  For a few years there was hope, although not for the Rohinghya community (thanks to Min Aung Hlaing), until the military coup...

Tyrant of the year 2022: Kim Jong-un, North Korea

Tyrant of the year 2022: Kim Jong-un, North Korea

“As far as freedoms go, there is no landscape so bleak as North Korea,” says Index assistant editor Katie Dancey-Downs. “Under Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime, citizens are fed propaganda in lieu of actual food. And as for elections? The ballot paper has only one...

Tyrant of the year 2022: Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua

Tyrant of the year 2022: Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua

There is nothing more disappointing (or predictable) than a revolutionary hero turned tyrant. In the great tradition of Lenin and Castro, Ortega promised a new dawn as the leader of the rebel Sandinista National Liberation Front which opposed the Somoza family...

Tyrant of the year 2022: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico

Tyrant of the year 2022: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico

"He who has nothing to hide, has nothing to fear". These were the words uttered by the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a February 2022 press conference held the day after Heber López Vásquez, founder and director of the digital news outlets...

Tyrant of the year 2022: Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus

Tyrant of the year 2022: Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus

“You can usually tell the quality of a tyrant’s credentials by the number of people he has thrown in jail on spurious grounds and Europe’s last dictator, Alyanksandr Lukashenka, is no exception,” says Index associate editor Mark Frary.  Lukashenka started his fifth...

Tyrant of the year 2022: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico

"He who has nothing to hide, has nothing to fear". These were the words uttered by the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a February 2022 press conference held the day after Heber López Vásquez, founder and director of the digital news outlets NoticiasWeb and RCP Noticias, was shot and killed. However this was not a call for greater transparency and action to respond to the ever-climbing rate of journalist murders in Mexico. He was publishing what he alleged were the confidential financial details of leading journalist, Carlos Loret de Mola, in response to the journalist’s reporting.

“This act of intimidation and the abuse of the presidential office would be egregious in any circumstance. However In Mexico, against a backdrop of rampant impunity and one of the worst track records for the safety of journalists, it is far worse than that,” says Index’s policy and campaigns officer Nik Williams. “According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 151 journalists and press workers have been killed in Mexico since 1992. The causes of these murders are complex; but a messy tangle of narco-politics, organised crime, corrupt police and state officials and runaway impunity has made Mexico one of the most dangerous locations to be a journalist outside a warzone. In fact, so far in 2022, Mexico is second only to Ukraine for the number of journalists killed.

Since Obrador only came to power in 2018, it would be overly-simplistic to lay this solely at his feet. However, according to Article 19, attacks on the press have increased by 85% since he took power, with every single Mexican state witnessing such incidents for the first time in 2021.

When there is a culture of impunity and the devaluing of journalists, the scene is set for violence. It is this erosion of the civic fabric that makes Article 19’s director for Mexico and Central America: “His [Obrador’s] speech causes other political actors to replicate his attacks. These actors feel empowered and allowed to attack in the face of a narrative that presents the press as an adversary. We are in a war speech, where the enemy must be annihilated.”

After publicly leaking Carlos Loret de Mola’s alleged salary and potentially violating Article 16 of the Mexican Constitution in the process, Obrador labelled journalists who are critical of him as “thugs, mercenaries, sellouts” and “the real mafia.” This framing establishes a false and dangerous parallel between the free press and criminal enterprises, further emboldening threats that can soon escalate to violence.

Impunity, the like of which is found in Mexico, requires significant and proactive action to address. It is not something that will just right itself when no one is looking. It requires a commitment to the value of free expression. It requires action. According to Human Rights Watch, “[o]f the 105 investigations into killings of journalists conducted by the federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression (Feadle), since its creation in 2010, just six have led to homicide convictions.” What good is a dedicated prosecutor if the rate of convictions is so low? Not only is this a failure to the family, friends and colleagues of the murdered journalists whose killings are being investigated by Feadle, this is a signal to those seeking to silence critical reporting: you can continue uninterrupted and undisturbed. This weakening of the mechanisms by which journalists can be protected is also seen in the 2020 decision of the Mexican Congress and supported by Obrador, to eliminate the independent funding that supported the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. Now the mechanism is dependent on the Interior Ministry to pay for protection measures, but funds have been consistently cut. Leading media freedom organisations and 14 members of US Congress have raised concerns about this, seemingly to no avail.

Williams says: “What Obrador sees as a war against the elites, we see as a war against journalists, and ultimately free expression. Without Obrador stepping forward and addressing the ingrained climate of fear and impunity, instead of fixating on those who report on uncomfortable facts, Mexican journalists will remain stuck in the crosshairs of those seeking their silence.”