Silenced for Speaking Out: Casualties in the War Between Corruption and the Free Press

By Claire Zalla


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n the evening of March 2, 2017, Cecilio Pineda Birto was shot at least ten times, including four times in the chest and once in the neck by unidentified gunmen while he lay in a hammock at a car wash in Guerrero, Mexico, waiting for his vehicle to be serviced.

Pineda was a freelance journalist who contributed to several publications and later published his reports on crime, social issues, and corruption on Facebook. Pineda’s murder was not the first time he was attacked. He received multiple threats through social media and once escaped a gunman who attempted to shoot him from outside Pineda’s home in September, 2015.

While tragic, Pineda’s death is not unique. Between 2006 and 2016, twenty-one journalists were murdered in Mexico with complete impunity. In 2017 alone, at least four journalists were murdered in connection to their work. All around the world, crime and corruption remain deadly beats for journalists. 1,312 journalists have been killed worldwide since 1992, and 844 were murders with confirmed motives. Thirty-five percent of those killed covered the two.

Mexican journalist and general director of the Tijuana weekly magazine Zeta, one of the few publications that frequently reports on drug trafficking, organized crime, and corruption in Mexico’s border cities, Adela Navarro Bello wrote that Mexican “journalists are caught in the combination of corruption and impunity, brought about by an even deadlier combination: corrupt government officials and organized crime allied against the free press, against the truth exposed by investigative and critical reporting.”

Mexico is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for media professionals and ranks sixth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) 2017 Global Impunity Index which spotlights countries where the killers of journalists go free. It calculates the number of unsolved murders over a ten-year period as a percentage of each country’s population. In 2017, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq topped the index with twenty-six, seventeen, and thirty-four journalists murdered with impunity in the last decade, respectively. Full justice, which includes prosecution of those who commissioned murders, has occurred in only four percent of all cases.

Political groups such as the Islamic State and other extremist organizations are suspected in about a third of cases, but government and military officials are considered the leading suspects in one quarter of the murders. The silencing of journalists is not a problem solely connected to terrorism or authoritarianism though; four countries on the 2017 Global Impunity Index—India, Mexico, Nigeria, and the Philippines—are on the Community of Democracies’ governing council, a global coalition dedicated to advancing and protecting democratic freedoms.

Transparency International, an international non-governmental organization founded in 1993, has made it its mission to combat global corruption and prevent criminal activities arising from corruption. Each year, it releases the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) which ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople. The top three most “clean” countries in 2017 were New Zealand, Denmark, and Sweden while the most “highly corrupt” were Syria, South Sudan, and Somalia. The United States ranked sixteenth most clean, tied with Belgium and Austria.

Reporters sans Frontières, or “Reporters without Borders,” (RSF) an international non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press, annually compiles the World Press Freedom Index (PFI). This index is created using criteria such as the country’s performance as regards pluralism, media independence, and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists.

There is a statistically significant correlation (0.60) between the PFI and the CPI. According to Transparency International, ninety-six percent of the 368 journalists who have died in the course of their work between 2012 and 2017 were killed in countries with corrupt public sectors (countries with a score of lower than forty-five on the CPI, with zero being highly corrupt and 100 being very clean). Seventy of the journalists, one out of five, were investigating stories related to corruption. In 179 of the deaths, no one was brought to justice.

This correlation suggests that countries which respect press freedom and civil society organizations tend to be more successful at impeding corruption while countries that suppress journalists and civil liberties generally score lower on the CPI.

Hungary exhibits the relationship between civil rights and corruption well: it recently enacted a series of measures to restrict press freedom. In 2010, it passed legislation that increased state regulation of the media. In 2015, more legislation followed allowing public bodies to charge fees for loosely defined labor costs, potentially making it more expensive to request information. Furthermore, a public agency and the police reportedly interfered with coverage of the refugee crisis. Predictably, Hungary’s CPI score has declined from fifty-five in 2012 to forty-five in 2017. When widespread corruption attacks groups that pose threats to the government’s authority, the citizens become less able to hold their governments accountable, and the corruption worsens.

According to the 2018 PFI, the standard for press freedom across the globe has fallen overall, even for those who historically rank highest. According to Rebecca Vincent, UK bureau director for RSF, the global score took a severe dip in 2016 when democracies were perceived to be declining, and there was a noticeable hostility toward the media particularly around the United States elections and the United Kingdom EU referendum. In 2018, the United States ranked forty-fifth on the index out of 180, down two places since 2017.

Freedom of the press is not a privilege of rich and stable nations; it is the bastion of democracy. Though the correlation between these indices is not necessarily causation, generally, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Wherever journalists are discredited, threatened, or silenced, corruption is permitted to thrive. Not only must we oppose corruption in local and national governments and collusion with organized crime, we must protect the journalists who seek to expose it.


Claire Zalla is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. You can contact her at