MEXICO CITY — In the final hours of Fredy López Arévalo’s life, he posted pictures and videos to Facebook of his family gathering around a big table celebrating his mother’s 83rd birthday. “Coconut punch for the birthday girl!,” López wrote just before 5 p.m. on October 28.
As he came home from the party three hours later, López was shot dead by a single bullet to the head. His killer was waiting for him as he pulled up to his house in San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. López was lifting a box of avocados out of the trunk of his car when a man emerged from the shadows and pulled the trigger. The father of six died on the spot.
He was the eighth journalist murdered in Mexico this year, the highest number in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international advocacy group. The ninth, a reporter for conservative outlet Breitbart, died in mysterious drowning circumstances in October during a reporting trip about a militia group in southern Mexico.
The recent deaths have a pattern: At least four posted on Facebook in the immediate hours before their murders with personal updates or live news feeds showing their location. All but one worked on their own or for small news outlets that relied almost entirely on Facebook to disseminate their stories. Roughly 60 percent of all Mexicans use the platform, offering journalists tremendous reach they might not have otherwise, especially in small communities where internet access is scarce.
But depending on the social media platform also makes these journalists particularly vulnerable to threats, because their personal lives are exposed in ways that make it easy to threaten and track them down. Of the eight Mexican journalists killed this year, seven worked for hyper-local news outlets that lacked independent websites and published or broadcast on Facebook. In small communities, they were just as influential, if not more, than journalists from big outlets.
“A lot of these journalists who are falling victim to violence have been active on social media, and particularly Facebook,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Many of them want to report on crime and violence. They want to do their own investigations. They want to reach an audience using their own particular kind of journalism.”
But, he added, “These platforms they have on Facebook also allow their attackers to find them relatively easily.”
One journalist whose publication had an independent website was murdered in July, a few months after accusing local police of using a Facebook page to falsely accuse him of having ties to organized crime. Another journalist now in hiding after gunmen attacked his newsroom said he receives constant death threats, “principally through Facebook.” A third who covered crime was assassinated last year at a restaurant shortly after doing a Facebook Live where he denounced alleged ties between the local mayor and criminal groups. This week, on Wednesday at dawn, gunmen fired on the house of a journalist in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo, one day after she posted on Facebook that she had received threats for her reporting.
In a statement to VICE World News, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said it invested in supporting journalists. It didn’t respond to questions about whether it was aware reporters were receiving death threats through its platform.
“We condemn any acts of violence against journalists and stand ready to work with law enforcement on their investigations into these horrific crimes,” a Meta spokesman said. “We know that many journalists use Facebook to publish stories and raise awareness about what’s happening in their communities. To support their work and help them stay safe, we have several programs, policies, and tools in place, including security features against harassment and potential threats.”
It cited, among other things, a feature that allows journalists to obtain stronger security features that protect their information and account against harassment and hacking threats.
López spent his last day busy on Facebook, posting to his personal account. He also had a one-man news site, Jovel T.V. and Radio, which was hosted on the platform.
Over the course of a few hours, he published a video of an armed self-defense group threatening local leaders, as well as short articles about the latest migrant caravan and city politics. López’s informal writing style mixed personal musings with government statistics and updates about local political appointments.
López’s eldest son, Oscar Takeshi López Moreno, said his father had received threats in the past for his journalism work, but nothing in recent years. But he is sure the assasination had to do with López’s reporting. “Every day he was publishing news, questioning the government,” he said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said there’s a strong chance López was targeted for his reporting, but it hasn’t ruled out other possibilities. Several of the murdered journalists had jobs on the side, including López, who rented cabins by the beach. The group said it has confirmed that at least three of the journalists were targeted because of their reporting. It’s calling for investigations into the rest.
At least two of the murdered journalists had unsuccessfully run for mayor before returning to journalism, an example of how many reporters in Mexico are involved in other professions and activities that makes it hard to discern the motives behind the killings. They also raise the perennial question of who qualifies as a journalist.
“In the sense of professional journalists who are salaried, most are not that. But still they are private citizens practicing journalism. In that sense, they are exercising freedom of speech and deserve protection,” said Andrew Paxman, a historian at CIDE, a university in Mexico City, who is writing a recent history of the Mexican press.
“They are trying to hold local government to account, and they get bullied for it, and sometimes they get killed for it,” he said.
Julio César Zubillaga, editor of El Diario de la Tarde, a newspaper in Iguala in the southern state of Guerrero, went into hiding in July with the help of federal authorities after local police entered his home in the middle of the night claiming they were looking for a criminal. A year earlier, men with high-power rifles shot up the paper’s offices.
Even now, four months after fleeing Iguala, Zubillaga said he receives constant death threats, to both his personal Facebook account and the paper’s Facebook page. And it’s not just threatening messages. Fake news pages have popped up on Facebook claiming Zubillaga has ties to an armed militia group, along with photos of Zubillaga and his family members. The journalist said he believes criminal groups are behind the fake news pages.
“It 's like a window: It opens a door for everyone to participate,” Zubillaga said. “There’s no care taken, no caution.”
Harlo Holmes, chief information security officer and director of digital security at Freedom of the Press Foundation, said reporters should take commonsense steps to protect themselves.
“Even if you are not explicitly saying, ‘Here I am at this particular location,’ there might be visible cues in the background that would tip anyone off as to where you are,” Holmes said. “Chances are, anyone who is surveilling you also knows the terrain as well as you do.”
But journalists in Mexico depend on Facebook too much to simply leave it.
Hundreds of small outlets have turned to the platform for survival as the world of paper newspapers has died out and government funding for media has trickled off, said Paula Saucedo, protection and defense program officer at Article 19, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of journalists.
“There are very small outlets, and they base all their communication through Facebook,” Saucedo said.
“Every year we witness more attacks on social media,” she added. “The vast majority of the male editors that were attacked this year have their media on Facebook.” Attacks could be both verbal and physical.
Saucedo attributed the violence against journalists to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s frequent broadsides against the press, which she said have fueled an even more hostile environment for the media, as well as widespread impunity for the politicians and crime bosses who order the journalists’ murders.
In a rare feat of justice, the killer of Javier Valdez, one of Mexico’s most well-known and respected reporters on organized crime, was sentenced in June to 32 years in prison. And a local mayor in the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the murder of Miroslava Breach, an acclaimed investigative journalist. Both were high-profile cases that garnered international attention.
“We have a really hard path when it comes to impunity. That’s a fact. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that during many years, no crimes were prosecuted effectively. We are trying to do our best to change that,” said Ricardo Sánchez, head of Mexico’s Special Prosecutor's Office for Attention to Crimes committed against Freedom of Expression.
Still, he said, his office doesn’t investigate if local authorities don’t come up with evidence linking the crime to the reporter’s work. That’s a problem in a country where more than 95 percent of crimes go unpunished.
Criminal groups are still warning journalists to censor what they write, or face the consequences. A member of the Viagras gang, which operates in the western state of Michoacán, recently told journalists passing through to “be careful about what you publish,” The Associated Press reported.
A leader of the group warned the journalists: “I can monitor you on Facebook, and I’ll find you.”