Detained by US, Mexican journalist fears death if deported (copy)

In this Oct. 4, 2017, photo provided by The National Press Club shows, Emilio Gutierrez Soto. Soto fled to the United States a decade ago after articles he wrote alleging corruption in the Mexican military caused his name to land on a hit list, according to his lawyer, Eduardo Beckett. (Noel St. John/The National Press Club via AP)

Noel St. John

For the 25th year in a row, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has released its annual survey of journalists killed around the world. The list includes 42 journalists and four media workers killed, some while covering war, others murdered in retaliation for their reporting. Another 20 were killed in circumstances that CPJ cannot confirm were related to their work. A record 262 journalists were imprisoned around the world, with Turkey, China and Egypt topping the list for the second year in a row.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump wages a relentless campaign to discredit journalism in the U.S., often with rhetoric that could potentially incite his followers to violence. Trump's policy of ramping up mass deportations could even send one Mexican journalist, currently jailed in the U.S., back to Mexico, where he might be killed.

Emilio Gutierrez Soto is being held in immigration detention in El Paso, Texas, along with his 24-year-old son, Oscar. They fled Mexico in 2008, seeking political asylum after Emilio received death threats for his work as a reporter.

"I wrote some articles where I described how the military was acting in the northwest of Chihuahua," Emilio told us, via telephone, on the "Democracy Now!" news hour, from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement prison. "This caused disgust at the Ministry of Defense, which sent the head of the 5th Military Zone in Chihuahua, General Garcia Vega, to threaten me, saying I had already written three articles noting corruption and assaults against the population by members of the military. He said, 'You've written three articles, and there's not going to be a fourth one.' And, of course, there was a fourth article."

That was in 2005. In 2008, Emilio received an urgent message from a friend who had heard from someone in the military that he was being targeted for assassination. He grabbed his vital documents and his son, Oscar, and fled to the U.S. After seven months in detention, he was released, pending a court ruling on his request for political asylum. Emilio and Oscar survived by operating a food truck in New Mexico until last July, when the judge ruled against him. They were taken to the immigration jail in handcuffs. From detention, Emilio appealed the decision.

"If we are deported, that obviously implies death," he told us. "If the [Mexican] government didn't give its consent for criminal groups to work with impunity, certainly the conditions would be different. ... The government of Mexico is the most corrupt government in the hemisphere and obviously enjoys no credibility."

CPJ reported that Mexico is the country with the highest number of journalists killed explicitly in retaliation for their reporting. Just last week, journalist Gumaro Perez Aguinaldo was murdered in the southern state of Veracruz, gunned down while attending a Christmas pageant at his son's school. He was at least the 12th journalist to be killed in Mexico so far this year.

On the Friday before Christmas, Bill McCarren, the executive director of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and Texas Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke met with Emilio and Oscar at the El Paso ICE detention center, and then met with William Joyce, acting field office director for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in El Paso, and ICE's local chief counsel, Elias Gastelo, to request Emilio and Oscar's release. In addition to the compelling proof that journalists are regularly killed in Mexico, McCarren brought a petition with 18,000 signatures from across the U.S., demanding Emilio and Oscar's release. According to McCarren, chief counsel Gastelo told them to "tone it down." McCarren took that to mean that they should be less public in their campaign to support Emilio: "We are here to shed light, when we believe someone is being arbitrarily detained. It is our job to ensure everyone knows his name."

On Wednesday, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals granted Emilio and Oscar a full stay of their deportation order. The case will be moved from the Texas border region to Virginia, where his advocates hope Emilio's dire situation will receive proper consideration. In addition, his legal team wants them released immediately pending appeal.

Even in the U.S., where a free press is enshrined in the Constitution, the climate for reporting has gotten so bad that a coalition of organizations led by the Freedom of the Press Foundation has organized the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, "to provide reliable, easy-to-access information on the number of press freedom violations in the United States — from journalists facing charges to reporters stopped at the U.S. border or asked to hand over their electronics."

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Journalism is an unacceptably dangerous profession the world over. Democracy depends on a vigorous free press, and it is up to all of us to demand it, and to defend it.

Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,400 stations, including WORT here. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan and David Goodman, of the newly published New York Times best-seller "Democracy Now!: 20 Years Covering the Movements Changing America."