MEXICO CITY — Mexico's biggest television network canceled a popular news show to protest the kidnapping of four reporters, abductions that media advocates called an escalation of a campaign by drug gangs to control information.
One of the journalists – a reporter for Televisa – was released Thursday, hours before journalist Denise Maerker, the anchor of Televisa's news magazine show "Starting Point," announced the network's decision shortly before midnight, when the show was scheduled to go on the air.
"We're not willing to go on the air tonight pretending nothing is happening," Maerker said. "There is something happening. All the reporters of this show and all reporters run huge risks in order to do their jobs and society runs the risk of sinking into silence and disinformation."
Four journalists – two of them from Televisa, one from Milenio Multimedia television and one from a local newspaper – were kidnapped Monday after they left a prison in the northern city of Gomez Palacio where they had covered a protest against the arrest of the penitentiary's director.
Local media reported Hector Gordoa, a reporter in Maerker's news show, had been released Thursday but Miguel Zapata, a spokesman for Televisa, said Friday he couldn't provide any information on the case.
On Friday, the Televisa news network reported that a grenade exploded outside its offices in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. Some widnows were damaged, but no injuries were reported.
In an opinion article published Friday, Milenio newspaper Deputy Managing Editor, Ciro Gomez Leyva said one of the journalists had been released but doesn't identify him.
In his column, Gomez Leyva also demanded the government take responsibility for the safe release of the other three reporters.
Gomez Leyva wrote that he and Carlos Marin, the newspaper's Managing Editor, "agreed that it is the Mexican state that has to assume 100 percent of the management of this crisis, which is not a television crisis but a national one."
Interior Secretary Francisco Blake condemned the kidnappings in a news conference Friday saying the government "reiterates its commitment to act with all of its legal attributions to guarantee the safety and (physical) integrity of the those kidnapped and to take those responsible to justice."
For years, local journalists in several Mexican states have been under siege from drug traffickers and many have resorted to self-censorship to avoid being targeted. Some drug gangs have even recruited reporters to pass the message to their colleagues on what can be covered and what needs to be ignored.
But the kidnappings of the reporters by a drug gang that demanded videos implicating alleged corrupt local officials with a rival gang be aired on national television is a new escalation in their attempts to intimidate reporters and control information, said Carlos Lauria of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
"This is unprecedented," Lauria said. "But the truth is that for a long time there has been a battle by organized crime groups to control the flow of information."
The Inter American Press Association President Alejandro Aguirre said his press group earlier this year visited northern Durango state, where the reporters were kidnapped, and heard from local journalists about their fear that violence against them would increase if the government didn't act.
"For a long time local reporters have been under this pressure but the long arm of organized crime hadn't reached the national media," Aguirre said. "The fact that they did go after these people from very large and well known media and the fact that the media responded, like Televisa deciding not to air the news show, definitely raises the gravity of the situation."
Press groups say Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. More than 60 reporters have been killed in Mexico since 2000, according to the National Human Rights Commission. Many more Mexican reporters have received threats from drug gangs.