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Mexican press tagged 'not free' amid drug war violence, self-censorship

Freedom House, in its annual report released today, says that Mexico is facing one of the world’s most radical declines in press freedom. A media pact to not publish grisly photos complicates the situation.

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A federal police officer stands near weapons found inside a concealed room in the basement of a home after a raid in Ciudad Juarez April 29. Federal police seized weapons of different calibers, grenades, RPGs, ammunition and police uniforms, according to local media.

Gael Gonzalez/Reuters

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The homepage of the independent “Narco Blog” is updated several times a day, with photos of cadavers floating in water and bullet-riddled windshields.

Entries garner hundreds of comments, some of them Mexicans disgusted with drug-related violence that has claimed more than 36,000 lives since late 2006, others sympathizing with one group or the other.

These images and messages, once the staple of Mexican newspapers and nightly news, are becoming increasingly rare. In March, major media outlets signed a pact that, among other things, promises to de-glorify drug trafficking by refusing to print or air grisly photos and menacing messages.

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In a culture where children role-play as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted fugitive, and where telenovelas, folk songs called narcocorridos, video games, and even a new opera are based on drug exploits, some call the move a noble one. But it also raises questions about censorship as press freedom has declined sharply in Mexico.

Freedom House, in its annual report released today, says that Mexico is facing one of the world’s most radical declines in press freedom, as journalists are killed and intimidated and newspapers are forced to publish press releases from criminal groups as if they were pure news. Navigating the drug conflict in Mexico has dogged every institution, from the presidency to the local police, and it is proving no less complicated for journalists and media outlets across the nation.

“If the pact leads to fewer journalists being killed, that would probably improve the situation,” says Karin Karlekar, the managing editor of Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Survey. “On the other hand, a codification of self-censorship will also make the situation worse. … It could be a situation where violence goes down but levels of self-censorship go up.”

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