Media death toll mounts on world press day
On World Press Freedom Day, the dismembered bodies of two missing news photographers are found in Mexico

UNITED NATIONS – UN leader Ban Ki-moon on Thursday, May 3, led international outrage at the growing number of journalist killings, as the bodies of two dead photographers were found in Mexico on World Press Freedom Day.

Ban told a press freedom celebration at the UN headquarters that journalists now face “dire threats” and highlighted that more than 60 were killed in 2011.

Amid international tributes to journalists such as Marie Colvin of the United States and Remi Ochlik of France who were killed in the Syrian protest city of Homs in March, some press freedom groups say this year could see an even worse media death toll.

In Veracruz, Mexico, Mexican security forces Thursday, May 3, found the dismembered bodies of two missing news photographers and two others in eastern Veracruz, days after a magazine reporter was killed in the same state.

In Somalia, radio reporter Farhan Jeemis Abdulle was shot dead by gunmen on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, police said. Abdulle was the fifth Somali journalist gunned down this year.

Mexico’s federal forces found “4 bags with the remains of 4 people, with two of them so far identified as (missing journalists) Guillermo Luna Varela and Gabriel Huge,” said a statement from the Veracruz state government.

Signs of torture

Authorities later identified the other two victims as Luna’s girlfriend Irasema Becerra and Esteban Rodriguez, a welder who until last year worked as a news photographer.

The bodies, which were dismembered and showed signs of torture, were dumped in a canal.

The grim discovery on World Press Freedom Day brought to 3 the number of journalists killed in less than a week in Veracruz, shining a spotlight on Mexico’s dire record for protecting journalists amid a brutal drug war.

The state government blamed the latest deaths on an “organized crime gang,” without elaborating.

The photographers, who covered crime stories for the Veracruznews photo agency, disappeared mid-afternoon Wednesday, according to local Notiver daily.

Both of them previously worked for Notiver. A reporter from that newspaper, Miguel Angel Lopez, was killed last June with his wife and son.

The latest deaths brought to 7 the number of journalists killed in Veracruz since the start of 2011, including reporter Regina Martinez from news magazine Proceso, who was found beaten and strangled to death at her home in the state capital Xalapa last Saturday.

Martinez’s colleagues said her murder was likely linked to her stories on drug traffickers and local corruption.

Many crime reporters have fled Veracruz in recent years amid threats and turf battles between the Zetas drug gang — set up by ex-army officers-turned-hitmen in the 1990s — and allies of the Sinaloa cartel of billionaire fugitive Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The government of President Felipe Calderon sent federal forces to Veracruz last October as part of a controversial military crackdown on organized crime which has been accompanied by a spike in violence.

The killings of journalists in Veracruz and other violence-hit areas have provoked outrage in Mexico and abroad but few signs of serious investigations.

Last Sunday, hundreds of people protested in Xalapa seeking a full probe into Martinez’s death and slamming attacks on freedom of expression in the state.

At least 77 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, according to the state-run Human Rights Commission.

“The authorities don’t react as they should” to threats against journalists, even after the recent adoption of a law promising to protect media workers, according to Mexico’s Cencos watchdog.

“Mexican authorities must act now to end the deadly cycle of impunity in crimes against the press,” Carlos Lauria, of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said in a statement Thursday.


The UN secretary general said “countless” reporters “face intimidation, harassment and censorship at the hands of governments, corporations and powerful individuals seeking to preserve their power or hide wrongdoings and misdeeds.”

“Impunity for those who attack or threaten journalists remains disturbingly prevalent,” he added, calling attacks on journalists “outrageous”.

Reporters Without Borders said even before the bodies of the Mexican photographers were found, 22 reporters and six bloggers and “citizen journalists” have already been killed since the start of the year.

According to Reporters Without Borders, 5 journalists have been killed in Somalia this year, 4 in Syria — including Colvin and Ochlik — two each in Bangladesh, Brazil and India, and one in Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand.

Andrei Netto, a correspondent for Brazilian daily O Estado de Sao Paulo who was abducted in Libya last year, said it was important to cover high-profile conflict such as the Arab uprisings, but more focus should be given to helping journalists in countries which call themselves democratic.

“We have to protect journalists in democratic countries first of all. There are tens of countries which are democratic and do not respect the law as they should do,” he said at a UN event on press freedom organized by France and Greece.

Reporters Without Borders said that more than 280 journalists and bloggers have been imprisoned this year, including 32 in Eritrea, 30 in China and 27 in Iran and 14 in Syria. But five have been detained in Azerbaijan, which is the UN Security Council president for May.

Ban and press freedom groups have sought to stress the role of the media, and particularly the new social media, in covering the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Syria over the past 18 months.

“Those new voices and new modes of communication have helped millions of people gain, for the first time, the chance at democracy and opportunities that had been denied to them for so long,” Ban said.

The Freedom House rights group said the Middle East and North Africa experienced “dramatic if precarious gains” in press freedom last year after the uprisings. But it added that Bahrain and Syria launched “harsh media crackdowns” as part of government crackdowns on uprisings.

The group said that China, Russia and Iran have kept a tight grip on the media by detaining critics and shutting down media outlets. – with reports from Agence France-Presse