17 Mar On Facebook’s Commitment to Human Rights, the Opportunity to Prevent Crimes and the Right for Truth-Seeking and Memory for Murdered Mexican Journalists
[Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul is a journalist and executive director of Defensores de la Democracia, a Mexican nonprofit focused on preventing violence against journalists via memory-building and new narratives for social change.]
With 14 journalists killed in Mexico in 2022, the country sustained its place as the world’s deadliest for media workers, even surpassing countries at war, like Ukraine or Yemen, according to Reporters Without Borders. Since the year 2000, the British organization Article 19, which advocates for freedom of information, has documented a toll of 157 reporters killed and 30 more that have disappeared. The sustained nature of this crisis can be explained by impunity (86% of these crimes remain unsolved. The few cases that have been solved only prosecuted the hitmen who killed the journalists; those who ordered the crime –the masterminds—are rarely arrested, prosecuted, tried or sentenced. This impairs the victims’ right for truth), but part of its cause can be attributed to the precarity of employment for Mexican journalists. On average, local reporters in Mexico make $242 monthly; salaries oscillate between $48 and $872. The lack of institutional support from media outlets isn’t only observable in the alarmingly low salaries.
On March 16, 2019 Francisco Romero Díaz was lured to a trap that led to his death. As dawn broke in the tourist city of Playa del Carmen, the reporter’s cellphone screen showed a new notification. It was a tip about a breaking news situation; it came from an anonymous account. Romero Díaz was accustomed to this. He’d received messages on the social platform and via SMS with information about breaking news before. That’s how he’d found out about the mass shooting in BPM, the electronic music festival, two years prior and that was how he’d known about the shooting in Cervecería Chapultepec, a local bar, a week earlier.
Romero Díaz, a local journalist, reported exclusively for the news outlet Ocurrió Aquí (It Happened Here), which he created and owned. Unlike other media outlets, Ocurrió Aquí existed solely as a Facebook page, nothing more; Facebook wasn’t a means to share the reporting hosted on a different website or print newspaper; it wasn’t the tool Romero Díaz used to engage with an audience that watched his television program or listened to a radio station. The Facebook page was it. It was the only place where Ocurrió Aquí existed.
This was unquestionably innovative, but not Romero Díaz’ idea. Before him, his mentor and friend Rubén Pat Cauich founded another news outlet on a Facebook page: Semanario Playa News Aquí y Ahora (Playa News Weekly Here and Now). And just like Romero Díaz, Pat Cauich didn’t do this as a free, creative, editorial decision, but out of need.
Before creating Semanario Playa News Aquí y Ahora, Pat Cauich worked at a national print paper with offices in the state of Quintana Roo called Por Esto! He covered the police beat and had been reporting on crime for over a decade. While at Por Esto! he met Romero Díaz, who was the delivery person: he took the paper to the selling points by motorcycle. Along his routes Romero Díaz encountered car crashes, fires, and breaking news events that he sometimes recorded or photographed with his phone. He often brought good material to the newsroom so the editor in chief promoted him to breaking news reporter and placed him under Pat Cauich’s watch, who was tasked to mentor him. A few months after Romero Díaz’ promotion, Por Esto! closed its entire operation in the state of Quintana Roo leaving all the staff unemployed.
When it closed –without much of an alternative—Pat Cauich decided to keep doing what he did best: reporting the news. He went on Facebook, opened a page and typed, in the About section, that it would be a site covering the news. Semanario Playa News Aquí y Ahora was born.
Hosting a news outlet on Facebook offered some benefits, mainly: a super-low-cost operation, immediacy and two-way communication. Facebook offered the journalist the ability of skipping an intermediary. By posting directly on Facebook, either via written posts or Live videos, Pat Cauich and Romero Díaz offered the information faster than any other outlet. They didn’t have to go through the added step of reviewing the information with an editor, publishing it on the hosting site and then sharing it on social media. Along with the rawness of their reporting, they offered something else: access to themselves. In one of Romero Díaz’ videos he can be seen answering an anonymous phone call and running off to the site of the tip. By bypassing the mediation that a website or print paper caters, these reporters offered total transparency not only about the information they reported, but of their own ways of reacting.
Semanario Playa News Aquí y Ahora became immediately popular. With Live videos and their comments, it offered the best version of the interaction a radio morning show — that receives calls from the audience — can have. And that sort of proximity with their audience soon translated into anonymous tips and information that they used to source their reporting. As Semanario Playa News Aquí y Ahora’s popularity grew, so did crime in the state. The mafia leader of the region was arrested and there was a change in government that brought a heightened level of instability to Playa del Carmen.
Adding to Mexico’s huge freedom of expression crisis, there is funding. Traditional local newspapers are commonly financed by governmental publicity paid for by mayors and governors who control the papers’ editorial line and limit its freedom. This makes it impossible to investigate those in power and hold them accountable. Reporters, sick of this financial gag, look for jobs elsewhere and often end up doing one of two things: they work several shifts as freelancers with zero security and protection or they get an income via an unrelated job — like driving a cab or opening a taquería — to help pay for the outlets they found themselves. It used to be more common for journalists to do the latter via blogs and websites, but when Facebook came along that changed.
Facebook has provided an alternative medium where reports can continue covering the news freely and spontaneously. But this opportunity has also made them more vulnerable. Because reporting for their own Facebook pages doesn’t fix the lack of support, resources, protection, training, and security a responsible news outlet should offer, Facebook becomes a deceiving solution. It succeeds at providing local reporters with a platform to publish the news freely and easily, but it fails to address what caused the crisis of freedom of expression in the first place. This leaves the underlying issues untouched and allows the crisis to take new forms.
Long before Francisco Romero Díaz was killed in 2019, another one of his colleagues from Semanario Playa News Aquí y Ahora was followed to a local bar where he was shot to death during the 2018 elections. The United Nations High Commissioner for the protection of Human Rights in Mexico confirmed José Guadalupe Chan Dzib had received multiple threats in the previous weeks.
Rubén Pat Cauich, director and founder of the Facebook-based news outlet, publicly demanded justice and published information regarding the crime in Semanario Playa News Aquí y Ahora. Twenty-six days later, Pat Cauich was also shot to death in a bar.
After his colleagues were murdered, Romero Díaz fled Playa del Carmen temporarily with help from a federal program for human rights defenders and reporters whose lives are at risk. He stayed in the neighboring state of Campeche briefly, but returned to Playa del Carmen where he inaugurated Ocurrió Aquí, the Facebook-based news outlet he worked for when he was killed. In the early morning of May 16, 2019, he received an anonymous message luring him to a bar under the false pretense of a tip. He was shot outside.
The three reporters from Playa del Carmen aren’t the only cases of killed journalists reporting on a social media platform.
In 2016, Nevith Condés Jaramillo founded El Observatorio del Sur, a Facebook-based news outlet that reported local and cultural events in the southern State of Mexico. In late 2017 he started receiving anonymous death threats via Facebook messenger. By mid 2018, Condés Jaramillo explained –via a Facebook Live video– that he was constantly attacked by bots and fake accounts. On August 24, 2019, he was stabbed to death.
Like him, Heber López Vázquez, killed in 2020, covered corruption in his town in Oaxaca for his news outlet, RCP Noticias, which was a Facebook page. The same year, María Elena Ferral Hernández was ambushed by assailants who shot and killed her. She published her op-ed about politics in Veracruz in La Polaca Totonaca, her Facebook-based news outlet. A year later, in 2021, Fredy Fernando López Arévalo was killed in his home town in the state of Chiapas, where he constantly posted news updates on his Facebook page.
Long before them, María Elizabeth Macías Castro reported active shootings and street blockades in the state of Tamaulipas on Twitter via an anonymous user: Nena D Laredo. She was killed on September 24, 2012.
It’s hard to determine the level of responsibility of a transnational enterprise like Facebook in this pre-existing crisis. While Facebook offers a service to connect and communicate with a virtual network, it was never conceived to replace local journalism outlets in the most dangerous country for reporters. And just like Facebook’s creators never thought of the platform as the go-to resource for journalists from towns overrun by crime and corruption, they never thought about the information they hosted.
José Guadalupe Chan Dzib, Rubén Pat Cauich and Francisco Romero Díaz were killed twice. After their own deaths, all the reporting they did for Playa del Carmen in their Facebook pages was taken down. Unknown users flagged all of their coverage as delicate or sensitive and the platform automatically deleted it all. The eeriest part of it is that they’re not alone. Some variations of the same have happened across the country.
Francisco Pacheco Beltrán was the editor for El Foro de Taxco, a print newspaper in Guerrero, since the early ‘90s. As he became more technologically savvy and access to the internet spread, he migrated the publication to a website and eventually to Facebook. Pacheco Beltrán was shot twice outside of his house on April 25, 2016. Since then, his children keep publishing El Foro de Taxco, often via Facebook and more regularly via a WhatsApp newsletter. Five years after Pacheco Beltrán’s murder, the entire content of his Facebook page was deleted after unknown users tried getting into the account and flagged the content as inappropriate.
Facebook founders never realized the platform would become essential in homicide cases of slain reporters in Mexico. And above all, they never realized that content — hosted in their servers along with selfies and puppy videos and recipes for feta cheese pasta — would become the legacy of victims of systemic violence and an essential piece of truth-seeking and collective memory for an entire people. They never thought the community standards created for their users in the U.S. would later be applied to small towns across Mexico to obliterate local reporting produced by murder victims.
Evidently, Facebook is not responsible for the lack of freedom of expression in Mexico, nor for the murders of these journalists. However, criminal responsibility is not the only kind of demand that can be made.
Facebook is responsible for offering a one-size-fits-all publication service around the world without proper training for their regional-based or regional-specific task forces so that they can assess, study and analyze the unique risks faced by its users. Facebook is also responsible for not providing tailored resources that human rights defenders, environmental defenders and local reporters can benefit from or that at least can serve as an extra layer of protection. Facebook has the entire power structure, toolkit and resources of Silicon Valley that can surely provide some sort of screening for threats targeting defenders. Especially in countries like Mexico, where a well-intended cooperation agreement with prosecutors’ offices might not be enough, especially if these are corrupt.
Here’s what Facebook can do:
- Work with national-based organizations to help identify local journalists working on the platform.
- Give news outlets based on the platform the recognition of information-providers, without asking them for documentation of a legal entity that most local reporters don’t have because going through that process often represents entry barriers such as funds, access to a notary, legal literacy, etc.
- Offer a security briefing or course on how to protect personal information and other sensitive material.
- Help document, flag and analyze threats via a simplified report including trends in time and metadata so the journalist can assess risk by themselves without depending on a local prosecutor to get forensics of the threats in case they’re either colluded or overwhelmed by case files.
- Safeguard and protect the coverage of these reporters, firstly merely by recognizing it as such and secondly by memorializing that content as it deserves if they’re murdered, and also because its public record of local microhistory.