These reporters risking their lives deserve our respect

As a headline, “Journalist murdered in Mexico” is unlikely to set the pulse racing. Even a subhead reading “Government and police not particularly interested” would have most of us wearily turning to the home page for the latest news from Celebrity Big Brother.

Extraordinarily, we are living in an age in which censorship through murder has become a favoured option of the powerful and the corrupt. It is an easy way to suppress difficult truths partly because, in the developed world, there is a general and growing public indifference to such matters.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the death toll among journalists last year was 70, the highest since records began 30 years ago. The vast majority of deaths were not from war zones but took place in countries which had an apparently respectable democratic infrastructure and were on amiable diplomatic terms with all the right governments.

Even when the international community stirs itself, there is unlikely to be much improvement. A year ago, a United Nations report into human rights in Mexico expressed concern at how many journalists had been killed: between 2004 and 2008, 20 had been murdered, and five more had disappeared. Not one of these crimes had resulted in a prosecution.

Concern was expressed; the Government vowed to do better. In the subsequent year, eight more journalists have been murdered, with one disappearance. Two deaths and a kidnapping – presumed dead – have occurred in the past month.

The victims of these crimes are heroes. Often local journalists, they have been killed exposing drugs gangs, child pornography, police and government corruption, people-trafficking. In spite of being harassed and bullied, they have pursued their investigations. “I was killed for writing too much” read a warning note attached to the dead body of one of them.

Powerful forces are often involved in these cases. When the Mexican writer Lydia Cacho wrote a book exposing organised child abuse and pornography, she was arrested for defamation, and threatened by the police with rape and murder. Only when a telephone conversation between a state governor and someone named in the book emerged was she released. An investigation into the treatment of Cacho, involving a former attorney general, police officers and a government minister, was inexplicably dropped. Cacho was advised to flee the country but has courageously stayed and is still working.

There is a direct connection between the murder of writers and the attitude of those who live in more comfortable countries, who have become bloated with news and cynical towards the media. When Robert Mahoney wrote recently in a  Guardian blog about the dangers facing journalists around the world, the comments from many of his readers were genuinely shocking.

These people deserved no more sympathy or interest than any other spectator caught in the crossfire, wrote one reader. There are too many journalists around anyway, said another. They knew the risks they were taking.

Only some of this nastiness can be explained by the poisonous air of the blogosphere. There is now a genuine confusion in the minds of many between the tawdry journalistic froth of our own decadent celebrity society and the courageous investigative reporting happening in countries such as Mexico.

It is vain and self-deluding to believe that the killing of writers in other parts of the world has nothing to do with our own lives and attitudes. As Cacho herself has said, “a corrupt political system is only sustained by a corrupt and complicit culture”.

Independent. Wednesday 27th January 2010

NOTE: For more information about the situation in Mexico, International PEN has a  dedicated page.   International  pressure is important. If you wish to protest about the killing of journalists in Mexico, a list of embassy details is to be found at: