Ten days before she was assassinated outside a Mexican convenience store, Yesenia Mollinedo noticed two mysterious stalkers following her on a motorbike.
“We know where you live, bitch,” one of them warned the journalist, the director of an online news outlet called El Veraz (The Truthful One) whose motto is “Journalism with Humanity”.
For more than a year, Mollinedo, 45, had been trying to shrug off what she hoped were empty threats designed to silence the stories she published about crime in the coastal town of Cosoleacaque. She repeatedly changed her phone number in an attempt to escape the intimidation. “I don’t think anything will happen to me,” Mollinedo insisted when relatives asked about her safety.
But at about 1.15pm last Monday it did. As the journalist stepped out of the shop with a rookie colleague, the assassins pounced, firing 16 shots that would end the lives of both women.
“Yesenia didn’t owe anything to anyone,” her brother, a fellow journalist called Ramiro Mollinedo, said this week as overwhelmed family members laid her to rest and fretted over their own safety now his sister was gone. “We don’t know who we are up against,” he admitted.
Mollinedo and Sheila Johana García were the first of four female journalists to lose their lives in the line of duty last week, a spasm of butchery that has shocked the world.
Two days later, the Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was shot in the face while covering an anticipated Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank.
The next day, a 29-year-old Chilean journalist, Francisca Sandoval, died after being shot in the head while covering May Day protests at the start of the month.
“Francisca was the most wonderful mother and daughter,” remembered Gabriel Cardozo, a photographer at Señal 3 de La Victoria, the channel where Sandoval had worked.
“She was one of those people who would always be looking out for you … How can you express your pain at losing someone with whom you’ve been through so much?”
The deaths of so many journalists in such a short space of time have sparked an international outcry and soul-searching in newsrooms from Mexico City to Doha.
“All we wanted to do was our job,” said Shatha Hanayshe, a Palestinian journalist who was standing next to the respected Al Jazeera reporter when she was gunned down trying to document the Israeli operation in Jenin.
“This will stay with me for the rest of my life,” added the 26-year-old journalist who appears frozen to the spot next to her colleague’s corpse in chilling footage showing the aftermath of that shooting. “There is no need to target us.”
Robert Mahoney, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said each of the shootings was particular and had taken place in different circumstances: “But there is a common thread here, which is that in 2022 we have seen a real upsurge in the numbers of journalists being killed.
“It is very difficult to draw a direct connection between any of these killings except to say that it has become – and is becoming, I believe – more dangerous to do independent journalism,” Mahoney added.
Part of the increase in bloodshed is the result of the outbreak of war in Ukraine, where at least seven journalists have died since Vladimir Putin’s invasion on 24 February. Thousands of civilians are also thought to have lost their lives.
The stunning surge in killings in Mexico, where local campaigners say 11 journalists have been assassinated since January compared with seven last year, had also contributed to the global rise. “It’s censorship through the gun,” Mahoney said of the wave of organized crime-related killings in the Latin American country whose media-bashing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been accused of encouraging the violence with his populist rhetoric.
“[It’s] killing people in order to send a message … [and] bring about that real cancer on journalism which is self-censorship: when journalists just stop or comply because it is just too dangerous to do otherwise.”
Yet campaigners say the killings are only the most dramatic expression of an increasingly gloomy outlook for media freedom in an ever-more authoritarian world.
The Chinese city of Hong Kong – home until recently to a feisty independent journalism scene – has been transformed in just a few years since Beijing’s imposition of a draconian national security law. “There is a now a palpable sense that the fight for democracy and media freedom has entered its endgame,” the International Federation for Journalists warned of China’s crackdown earlier this year, describing how many media workers had been jailed or fled the former colony in recent months.
Russian journalists faced a clampdown even before this year’s invasion of Ukraine, while reporters in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries – and even democracies such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil – are coming under growing pressure from governments who consider them an irritant.
Mahoney said his group was also concerned about the growing online harassment and intimidation of journalists, particularly female ones, around the globe. “Whether it’s in the Philippines or in India, more and more journalists are attacked online and these online attacks can sometimes be a harbinger of a physical attack,” he warned, urging social media companies to take action.
The CPJ president, Jodie Ginsberg, said covering protests – as Francisca Sandoval lost her life doing in Chile – had also become increasingly dangerous for journalists.
“Journalists are not being killed in the crossfire any longer: increasingly, they are being targeted,” Ginsberg added. “In the case of Shireen Abu Akleh, eyewitnesses say Israeli forces shot and killed her while she was reporting and clearly identified as ‘press’ and this follows a worrying pattern of Israeli forces targeting Palestinian journalists.”
The first hints of the danger Mollinedo was facing in Mexico began about 18 months ago, when her crime coverage began attracting a growing number of threats. “Take the fucking story down or we will fuck you up,” they warned, according to her brother who said she had deleted a series of stories in an effort to avoid trouble.
The identity of Mollinedo’s killers is a mystery, and is likely to remain so. Activists say more than 150 Mexican journalists have been murdered since the turn of the century with more than 90% going unsolved and unpunished.
Valério Luiz Filho, a Brazilian lawyer whose journalist father was assassinated nearly 10 years ago as he left the radio station where he worked, said the influential perpetrators of such crimes had to be held responsible if anything was to change.
Ten years after he found his father’s lifeless body in a bullet-riddled car in the city of Goiânia, the five suspected killers – who include one powerful local figure – have yet to be sentenced or jailed.
“Justice means showing these people that the thing they took away has value. It means making them understand the value of the thing they exterminated,” Luiz said.
“There has to be justice in these cases, whether it’s in Chile or Mexico or wherever … [so people understand] that the journalists whose lives were stolen are valuable and that their work is valuable too.
“Only justice will send this kind of message,” Luiz said, as thousands of mourners bade farewell to Shireen Abu Aklen more than 10,000km away in Jerusalem.