Conflict & Justice

Mexican journalists lose a 'formidable advocate' with death of Mike O'Connor


People and relatives stand next to the coffin of a murdered Mexican reporter named Victor Baez, during his funeral in Mexico's Veracruz state on June 15, 2012.


Oscar Martinez/Reuters

Mike O'Connor grew up on the US-Mexico border. He spent most of his journalism career working in conflict zones — Central America, the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia — and then he brought that experience back to that same part of the world in 2009, when O'Connor took over as the Mexico City representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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O'Connor died of a heart attack on Sunday night. He was 67.

"Mexican journalists have lost one of their most formidable advocates," wrote Carlos Lauria, Senior Americas Program Coordinator for the CPJ based in New York.

"Mike was an outstanding investigative reporter, documenting the dozens of cases of journalists who have been killed, disappeared, and brutally attacked with total impunity in Mexico in the last few years," Lauria said.

O'Connor stayed in touch with his Mexican colleagues by meeting with them in person and spending countless hours speaking with them by phone, "trying to bring comfort to people who have been threatened with death," Lauria said.

These are people whose family members have been threatened or attacked, Lauria added, people whose places of work have been bombed. O'Connor, he said, "became a formidable advocate and he will be dearly missed in Mexico." 

Lauria said more than 50 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico over the last six years.

"Perhaps the most devastating consequences of this wave of unprecendented violence is a state of fear, a climate of lawlessness and intimidation in which journalists and media do their work," he said.

O'Connor wrote about the impact of that state of fear on the practice of journalism in the country. In his most recent post on the CPJ blog, dated August 7, he paints a grim picture of the situation and does not shy away from pointing the finger at Mexican authorities for their failures.

Organized crime capos and corrupt politicians have been getting away with murdering journalists in Mexico for so long that there isn't a reliable count on the number of the dead or a useful way to measure the crushing effects on a democracy when a country's press is afraid to tell the truth. CPJ research shows that, of 69 journalists killed since 1994 in Mexico, 28 were clearly killed because of their work, and nearly all of those directly targeted for murder. But the killing started years before that, the numbers are not dependable, and the motives are often unknown, because the professionalism of the investigations is doubtful. Mexico's state governments have simply failed to find those responsible, and journalists working outside of the capital have for the most part decided their only protection is to not cover stories the killers don't want covered.

Lauria said O'Connor played an important role in pushing the Mexican government earlier this year to pass legislation making it easier to prosecute crimes against freedom of expression. However, "it hasn't gotten better," he said. 

O'Connor's final CPJ report on press freedom will be released soon, Lauria said. And it shows that criminal organizations have arrived at the doorstep of Mexico City.

"While the Mexican government has taken steps, they have been clearly insufficient," he said.