Latest murder highlights blurred lines in journalism

ACAYUCAN: For some, Gumaro Perez was an experienced reporter who got on well with locals and earned the nickname “the red man” for his coverage of bloody crimes in Veracruz, one of Mexico’s deadliest states for journalists and civilians alike.

In the eyes of prosecutors, Perez was an alleged drug cartel operative who met a grisly end when he was shot dead December 19 while attending a Christmas party at his 6-year-old son’s school in Acayucan, purportedly by gunmen from a rival gang.

Either way, the brazen daylight killing underscored the blurred-lines nature of how journalism is practiced in much of Mexico, especially in the countryside and in areas where organized crime gangs hold sway over corrupt authorities, terrorize local populations and are largely free to harass and murder reporters with impunity.

Reporting in such places often entails writing or uploading photographs to a rudimentary website or Facebook page, or working part-time for a small local media outlet whose meager salaries don’t cover expenses. Holding down a second job is essential. Some moonlight as cabbies or run small businesses. Others may work for a local government. And some, it’s widely believed — though it is said to be a small minority — go on the payroll of a cartel or a corrupt government.

At least 10 Mexican journalists were killed in 2017 in what observers are calling a crisis for freedom of expression, and the risk is especially high for those who operate without editors, company directors or colleagues who could go to bat for them or steer them to institutions that would protect them.

“It certainly does make them more vulnerable,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. He cited in particular the decapitation-murder nearly three years ago of Moises Sanchez, another Veracruz reporter, for motives the CPJ has confirmed were related to his work.

Sanchez “had his own little newspaper which he didn’t actually make any money with, so he doubled as a taxi driver and he financed that little newspaper with the money that he made as a taxi driver,” Hootsen said. “So he didn’t have any institutional backing. So when he started getting death threats, at that point there’s really nobody to back him up.”