August 26, 2019 / 9:34 PM / 19 days ago

U.N. urges better protection of journalists, activists as Mexico murders climb

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A Mexican government program to protect journalists and activists is underfunded and cannot guarantee safety amid widespread impunity and threats, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico said on Monday.

At least 11 reporters and 13 human rights activists have been killed so far this year, according to the U.N. group. That nearly exceeds last year’s tallies, and suggests death tolls could reach record levels in 2019.

Jan Jarab, head of the OHCHR here, said Mexico’s “political commitment” to protecting journalists and activists had proven to be a challenge on various levels.

The concern raises questions about how much President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sees the issue as a priority. Mexico’s total murder tally has also continued rising, underlining the scale of the task he faces.

Very few cases result in convictions, or even arrests. More than half of the suspects identified by the program were public officials.

Rights groups say that officials who threaten journalists and activists are often seeking to hide corruption and protect their personal interests.

“Mexico lacks sufficient recognition for the work of human rights defenders and journalists,” Jarab told a news conference where he presented a 410-page OHCHR report, which argues impunity in Mexico was a key reason to bolster the program.

“Authorities need to publicly condemn all aggressions,” he said.

The government’s Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists - which provides resources such as panic buttons, surveillance systems and body guards - currently serves 903 people, up from 48 at its launch five years ago.

However, budgets and staffing have not kept pace, and the program could comprise more than 3,400 people by the end of Lopez Obrador’s six-year term in 2024, Jarab said.

“The growth we’ve had in recent years could accelerate if things don’t change,” he added. “The mechanism needs strengthening, it needs to have sufficient staffing to protect the beneficiaries and take preventative actions.”

Staffing has stagnated since 2014, while this year’s budget is less than what was spent in 2017 and 2018, the report said.

The government has not yet responded to an April request to increase the budget.

Faced with scant resources, the program cannot guarantee efficient and proper functioning, the report said. For example, staff often suffer delays in reacting to threats because they cannot access work email outside of the office, or have difficulty navigating the internet on government computers.

A company monitoring panic button alerts cannot quickly evaluate and react to new risks, including emergencies, the report says.

Four reporters were killed this month alone in Mexico, which Reporters Without Borders has called the most dangerous country for journalists in the Western Hemisphere.

Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Dan Grebler

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