Maria Elena was undoubtedly a beacon of hope in a county beset by violence. Her commitment to the truth, despite the ongoing personal cost, and her refusal to be intimidated speak volumes of her inner strength and courage

Mexican journalist Maria Elena Ferral Hernandez is named recipient of the 2021 Courage in Journalism Award

Mexican journalist Maria Elena Ferral Hernandez, who was killed in March 2020, was today announced as the recipient of the 2021 Legatum Institute Courage in Journalism Award. Co-founder of news website El Quinto Poder and correspondent for El Diario de Xalapa and El Heraldo de Poza Rica, Ferral was shot in broad daylight following the publication of an article in which she detailed the murders of four potential mayoral candidates in the local municipality of Gutiérrez Zamora.

Ferral had previously survived three attempts on her life, having published stories relating to corruption among local politicians and the activities of local criminal groups, including kidnappings and disappearances. She was based in the Papantla region of the state of Veracruz, which is recognised as prized territory for criminal groups who use the state highway for the transportation of illegal goods and drugs and trafficking. Reporting within the region is widely considered to be a death sentence, with Veracruz being the most dangerous state in Mexico for journalists.

Despite this, Ferral continued her work from a deep commitment to the people, believing that the mission of her work as a journalist was to serve her community. She was keenly aware of the risks to her life, but her conviction of the need to seek truth and report accurately for the benefit of all Mexicans gave her perseverance.

Every year, the Courage in Journalism Award is given posthumously to a journalist who has been killed as a direct result of their work and whose death has had significant impact.

David Wesson, Legatum Institute Managing Director, commented: “Maria Elena Ferral Hernandez is a very worthy recipient of this Award – she was undoubtedly a beacon of hope in a county beset by violence, where journalists are frequently deliberately targeted. Maria Elena’s commitment to the truth, despite the ongoing personal cost, and her refusal to be intimidated speak volumes of her inner strength and courage.

We owe Maria Elena, and all journalists who work tirelessly in the pursuit of truth, a great debt. Sadly, in too many places around the world, journalists can still pay the ultimate price for free, fair and accurate reporting. This Award honours the legacy of those men and women and shines a light on the countries where press freedoms are still constrained either by crime, corruption, war or state-led censorship.”

In 2020, Reporters Without Borders reported the death of eight journalists in Mexico. ARTICLE 19, a human rights organisation with a focus on the defense and promotion of freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide, recently released figures showing that the country has seen a 12% year-on-year increase in journalist deaths since 2009, following the Government’s militarised crackdown on drug cartels. As a result, Mexico was host to the most journalist fatalities in the world in 2020.

However, Mexico is not the only country in which press freedoms are at risk. Almost three quarters of the 167 countries included in the 2020 Legatum Prosperity Index experienced declining levels of freedom of speech and access to information over the last decade. Across the globe, journalist safety, freedom from government censorship, political diversity of media perspectives, and freedom of opinion and expression, were all at lower levels in 2020 than they were in 2007.

Pedro Cardenas, Case Documentation Coordinator for ARTICLE 19 Mexico, commented: “With media freedoms continuing to be threatened and undermined around the world, it is essential to highlight the fundamental role that free and fair journalism plays in flourishing societies. Press freedoms are an essential component of a functioning democracy, and it is the right of the people to have access to information to ensure they are empowered to debate critical issues and hold leaders to account.

“It is disappointing to see Mexico once again take the position as one of most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. However, with more than 98% of attacks on, and killings of, journalists not resulting in prosecutions, it is perhaps unsurprising that this trend has continued. Impunity remains a serious concern, with journalists investigating the nexus between organised crime and corrupt officials most frequently targeted. However, until the Mexican Government sees a free press as a fundamental component of prosperity, criminals will continue to threaten and kill journalists, in what is seen as a ‘permissive’ environment.

“It is essential that better training is provided for public officials, police, and judges in Mexico to ensure they fully understand the key role that journalists play in prosperous democracies. The international community can also play a vital role, by continuing to put pressure on the Mexican Government and remind it of its responsibility both to citizens and to journalists.”

The Legatum Institute Courage in Journalism Award was inaugurated following the murder of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 in order to honour her death and shine a light on the very real dangers facing journalists in many parts of the world. The 2020 recipient of the Courage in Journalism Award was Raed Fares, the Syrian journalist and activist who had worked tirelessly to draw international attention to the continued violence in Syria; and in 2019, Jan Kuciak was named recipient following his investigative reporting of corruption in Slovakia.

The judging panel of the 2020 Courage in Journalism Award is Christina Lamb OBE, Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sunday Times; Mike Thomson, BBC World Affairs Correspondent; Abeer Saady, International Advisor to the Ethical Journalism Network; Con Coughlin, Defense Editor for the Telegraph; and Lord Freud, former journalist for the Financial Times.