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Mexican Journalist Wins Freedom of Speech Award Amid Violent Atmosphere for Journalists

Mexican journalist Anabel Herandez wins DW's Freedom of Speech Award. (Photo: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)
Mexican journalist Anabel Herandez wins DW's Freedom of Speech Award. (Photo: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

“With gratitude and hope I accept the award on behalf of all the brave journalists who are doing their job every day,” – Anabel Hernández as she received the 2019 DW Freedom of Speech Award.

Anabel Hernandez, an exiled Mexican investigative journalist, won the Freedom of Speech Award given by Germany’s news agency Deutsche Welle, making her the first female to win in the five-year history of the award. Hernandez’s award is especially noteworthy as Mexico is considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world.

The 48-year-old woman is well-known for her high-profile investigative reports that uncover links between the Mexican government and drug cartel.

“For months I contemplated the bulletproof vest that the government of Mexico gave me in 2016, shortly before publishing my last book on the case of the 43 students who disappeared in Iguala in the state of Guerrero in September 2014.

“It was a way of warning me: ‘you have gone too far’ in your investigations. But even with the vest in front of me I refused to think about myself and the risk. There has always been something more important: truth and justice,” Hernandez said at the award event.

Hernandez started her journalism career in 1993 when she joined Reforma Daily. Her father’s mysterious murder in 2000 prompted her to be an investigative journalist.  She has written about graft cases in the government sector, sexual violence, and drug cartels in her native country.

Anabel Hernandez previously won journalism awards for her investigative work on irregular spending during the Vincente Fox presidency in 2001 which won her Mexico’s national prize for journalism, and for her work on slavery and sexual harassment affecting Mexican girls in the U.S. city of San Diego in 2003.

Her Books Put Her Life Under Threat

After a five-year investigation, Anabel Hernandez published her first book in 2010 titled Los Señores del Narco (the English version titled Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers was released three years later). The book reveals not only actors behind the drug cartel but also discloses drug distribution systems that involved politicians, military members and business people.

Her debut book put her life and her family at risk. She admitted receiving threats from influential politicians. She ultimately had to get 24-hour protection following the publication of her first book.

Her second book, La Verdadera Noche de Iguala, was published in 2016, and focused on the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala. The English version of her work (A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students) was published in 2018.

Her second book revealed the brutal mass murder of students who were heading to Mexico City to join a protest. After piecing together eye witness accounts and official reports of their murder, she discovered the buses they took to the protest contained over $2 million worth of hidden heroin.

The publication of her second book forced her and her family to leave Mexico. She finally left her native country and became a fellow at the University of California in Berkley for two years (2014-2016).

“I received threats immediately,” she told NPR in October 2018, referring to the publication of her second book. “I have to say that the wife of one of the persons disappeared. In the middle of my investigation, one of my sources was murdered in the streets. But I think that this is my job. And I’m convinced that if I put some light in this darkness, it’s more important than my own safety.”

Mexico: A Deadly Country For Journalists

Despite an increase to 144th from 147th in Mexico’s ranking on the annual World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Border (RSF), Mexico is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists and grouped in the same company as war-torn countries Afghanistan and Syria. Journalism is especially dangerous for those who cover sensitive political issues and organized crime.

More than 100 Mexican journalists have been killed since 2000. Death threats targeting journalists have also forced local media outlets to shut down their operations.

In April 2017, a local newspaper in the border town Juarez was forced to close following an increase in security threats targeting media workers and after a series of journalist murders in the past few years.

This year, on the eve of the World Press Freedom Day (May 3), a Mexican radio journalist in an indigenous region in Southern Mexico was shot to death following his report corruption involving local authorities.

Under AMLO, Mexico’s Press Freedom Threatens to Worsen

Mexico’s newly elected President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), has proven to be a challenge to journalists despite at the same time offering journalists unprecedented access.

On one side, AMLO seems to lure and reward media workers by holding morning briefings for journalists, which is seen as remarkable and especially welcome in Latin America.

“The fact that the president gives a press conference every morning is absolutely extraordinary and unprecedented across Latin America. It’s a dream of any journalist to have direct access to the president every day and to ask whatever you want,” Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, told Yahoo.

However, some journalists are highly critical of AMLO’s morning briefings and accuse it of being a forum for AMLO to attack the press.

“The morning press conferences are used to defame journalists. I have received direct and indirect threats against me, including that people will publish contracts of government advertisements I allegedly received. There has been permanent online harassment and defamation against anyone who disagrees with the president. It’s a climate of hostility,” said Raymundo Riva Palacio, founder of Eje Central, as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote.

AMLO also pressures and criticizes media outlets critical to him. He has disparaged reporters as elite, conservative, or accused them of being puppets. AMLO was elected on a left-wing populist platform.

“He is very popular and very loved with a huge social base of support, which makes his words really powerful,” said Mexican national reporter Ivonne Melgar to Yahoo. “If he says to his followers that those who ask difficult questions [are] sellouts or conservatives or some other label, the social damage is really serious. It makes you doubly vulnerable in this field of work.”

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Yasmeen Rasidi

Yasmeen is a writer and political science graduate of the National University, Jakarta. She covers a variety of topics for Citizen Truth including the Asia and Pacific region, international conflicts and press freedom issues. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia and GeoStrategist previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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