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Freedom of opinion and expression

“Without a free press there is no democracy”

21 November 2023

Mexican journalist Ricardo Hernández, winner of the 2023 Breach/Valdez Award for Journalism and Human Rights. © UN Human Rights/Petre Oprea

Mexican journalist Ricardo Hernández won the 2023 Breach/Valdez Award for Journalism and Human Rights for “The other Cancun,” an investigative piece on the hidden side of the Caribbean resort town of Cancun.

In this interview, Hernández talks about his work, media freedom and the risks journalists face in Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist, according to media groups. In 2022, the UN Human Rights office in Mexico documented the killings of at least nine journalists and five media workers in Mexico, possibly in relation to their work.

Hernández, 31, who has faced threats, censorship and violence for reporting on social issues in the state of Quintana Roo, believes the right to a free press is essential for the protection and promotion of other fundamental human rights.

“Without freedom of the press there is no democracy,” he said.

The Office works for the protection of journalists in Mexico, documenting violations of journalists' human rights, assisting them as they seek protection and justice, and advising them on security. The Office also provides technical assistance to the State to strengthen the safety of journalists and its capabilities to investigate crimes committed against journalists.

What is “The other Cancun” about?

Cancun is one of the newest cities in Mexico, developed 50 years ago from scratch to build luxury hotels for tourists. Cancun is also Mexico’s best-known brand in the world, bringing in US$ 6 billion per year in revenues. My idea was to dismantle the idea of the tourist Cancun and show the other side of the coin. I was interested in talking about the people who keep the tourism industry alive – the waiters, the maids, the maintenance staff – and write about where they live. There are 250,000 people living in irregular settlements in Cancun, in places where there are no basic public services such as drainage, water, sewage, hospitals, schools, public parks or even a soccer field where children can play. I found out that while in the morning they cleaned luxury suites with goose feather pillows, at night they slept in a shack made up of cloth tied between trees under a tin roof. The people who work in the tourism industry don’t have the best working conditions, and many belong to the informal economy and are irregular migrants from other countries. It is also one of the most dangerous places for a woman in the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Living there means that your daughter can be raped or sexually abused. There is also no access to justice because there are no nearby offices to file complaints, and there’s no public transportation, and people are too poor to travel.

What type of challenges and risks do journalists face in Mexico?

The situation of media freedom in Mexico is very serious. We are living not only through one of the most violent periods for the press, but also the most lethal. Last year was the deadliest year for the press in Mexico, with 13 journalists murdered. These figures can only be compared with those of countries at war like Ukraine, and in Mexico there is no declared war, but rather a low-intensity war against drug trafficking. The murder of journalists, however, is the last step. Before death there is a wide range of violence and abuse that includes physical mistreatment, threats, censorship, arbitrary detentions and other types of abuses. According to Article 19, an independent organization that promotes the right to freedom of expression and access to information in Mexico and Central America, there were 700 attacks against the press last year. Those are the ones that were reported, which are not necessarily the ones that actually occurred, because there is also a black hole for fear of reporting since it is the authorities themselves who usually attack us.

What effects does this climate have on your work?

Journalists in Mexico work under a climate of anguish, uncertainty and fear because the murder of journalists is common. When starting a journalistic project this climate inhibits and intimidates you. Then there is this whole scale of abuses that I spoke of earlier, the generalized censorship and a lack of understanding from the businessmen who own and direct the media to improve the conditions that are not the most optimal and that force us to look for other jobs outside of journalism.

We also have to fight against a discourse of stigma that has been launched from the president’s office. Every morning, my president gives a morning news conference in which he points out, stigmatizes and attacks journalists, and that has created a climate of violence, not only at the national level, but cascading to the local level, so local authorities have that cloak of impunity.

What threats or challenges did you face with “The other Cancun”?

At the time I published this report in a magazine I was also working for a local newspaper, and they threatened to fire me for attacking the interests of the newspaper and the interests of the government. I was accused of attacking the image of Cancun and its tourism industry. After I published a report on extortion and the illegal collection of rents, I received a second threat of dismissal, and that is when I decided to resign and become a freelancer. Since then, I have gained freedom in exchange for insecurity in terms of not having a permanent job.

In Quintana Roo we did a survey to learn first-hand about the working conditions of journalists, and we found that salaries range between US$ 100 and US$ 560 per month, which is not enough to purchase the basic food basket. What surprised us is that many journalists had four or five jobs to support themselves, and not necessarily in media. In the mornings they work as reporters, and in the afternoons they sell second-hand products, for example.

What can be done to end impunity for crimes against journalists?

First and foremost, end the climate of harassment and pointing out that comes from the president’s office, which is replicated at the local level. Second, end impunity. We have not heard of any exemplary punishment of abusers or perpetrators for the murders of journalists in Mexico. Also, we need to guarantee the protection of journalists, especially through the federal mechanism, which is part of the Ministry of the Interior. Transferring the obligation to protect journalists to local authorities means that they would be transferring the obligation to protect us to the same authorities that are attacking us. We feel more vulnerable when protection mechanisms are local. We also need more social support. People need to react with more indignation when a journalist is killed.