Freedom of speech and attacks on journalists in 2015: isolated incidents or endemic patterns?


The murder of 8 journalists at the satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in Paris was one of the highest profile attacks on journalists in 2015, instigating intense media coverage and public debate. Themes ranged from questions of how far freedom of expression should extend, to the plausibility of French multiculturalism. The effects of the shooting and the subsequent media coverage were global, with the handle, ‘Je suis Charlie’ reflecting not only a mood of collective solidarity, but also deeply felt vulnerability.

This tragic event, however, was but one instance of many lethal attacks on journalists in 2015. While human rights monitors report that more journalists were killed in 2014, the year 2015 was notable for the increased proportion of such attacks being deliberate, planned acts of violence and murder.

In 2014, Mexico took over from Brazil as the deadliest nation in the Western hemisphere for journalists. Corruption and collusion between local politicians, governments and organised crime has meant that such acts have been carried out with impunity.

In July 2015, for instance, Ruben Espinosa, a photo journalist, and four others were found tortured and murdered in an apartment in Mexico City, a city previously considered a sanctuary for journalists in Mexico.  Espinosa had fled his home state of Veracruz to a supposed safe zone after receiving several threats, following the publication of an unflattering photo he took of the governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte. Since Duarte took office in 2010, 14 journalists have been murdered or disappeared. While the July 2015 attack instigated public outrage, no tangible measures have been taken to address this pattern of violence, nor have the attackers been found. 

While a defining feature of the Mexican context is the connections between politicians and organised crime, violence against journalists in Brazil is mainly the consequence of political upheavals and protests. However, recent developments in Brazil seem promising at least, with an overall downward trend in numbers of attacks on journalists since 2005. This is alongside pioneering efforts in Brazil towards the protection of online civil rights, with the establishment of the ‘Internet Civil Framework’ law. However, like Mexico, there is still an endemic problem of local authority collusion with criminal violence. This has meant that impunity continues to be a problem in both states, with the concentration of media power in the hands of the few diminishing the capacity of journalists to challenge established patterns of corruption and power.

Acts of violence such as the murder of Ruben Espnosa in July 2015 are not only individual tragedies. They affect the ability of the rest of the society to express themselves freely, as seen in Mexico and Brazil, where self-censorship and refusing to report on certain topics has been a common consequence. While the Charlie Hebdo shooting was perhaps a reminder of the vulnerability of those who speak out controversially, its anniversary should prompt us to reflect about the fact that such vulnerability is not an isolated problem, but an endemic feature of the political and social landscape in many countries.


This opinion piece was written by Genevieve Wilks, the summer AJHR Student Editor. For more information about our internships, click here.


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Photo of Reuben Espnosa (above).