Mexico’s human rights chief draws fury for asking if journalists have been killed

David Agren in Mexico City
Photograph: Madla Hartz/EPA

Mexico’s new human rights commissioner has questioned if journalists are actually killed in the country, which has become a cemetery for reporters over the past two decades – and has not become any safer since the arrival of a leftwing government late last year.

After being elected commissioner on Tuesday night, Rosario Piedra Ibarra blithely responded to reporters’ questions on the murder of reporters in the country by asking, “They’ve killed journalists?”

She then insisted attacks on media members “happened in past administrations and it’s something terrible” – even though at least 11 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office almost a year ago.

Mexican journalists responded with outrage to Piedra’s suggestion that attacks on the media had vanished with López Obrador’s arrival.

Related: Mexican media call for more protection after three killings in a week

A collective of journalists forced to flee their homes after attacks or threats filed a complaint against Piedra with the National Human Rights Commission – one of the first received by the body since she became its commissioner.

“The simple ignorance of 131 journalists killed in Mexico, coming from the ‘ombudsman’, is, in itself, a violation of the human rights of those of us who have suffered violence for practicing journalism,” tweeted Victims of Forced Internal Displacement in Mexico, which filed the complaint.

“Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world to practise journalism,” said the press freedom organisation Article 19. Mexico has a special prosecutor for pursuing crimes committed against the press but nearly all of the 544 attacks against journalists in 2018, it added, remain unsolved.

Media workers have come under attack from organised crime as well as corrupt public officials including police officers and members of local governments.

Related: Mario Vargas Llosa: murder of Mexican journalists is due to press freedom

Three journalists were killed over just four days in August, including Jorge Ruiz Vázquez, who was killed in the eastern state of Veracruz after receiving multiple death threats and despite being in a government protection program.

A newspaper in Chihuahua, El Monitor de Parral, ceased publishing its print edition after being firebombed the same month. Assailants also ransacked the home of investigative reporter Lydia Cacho, stealing documents and killing her two dogs.

The comments from the new commissioner come amid a worsening relationship between López Obrador and the press corps, who often come under intense criticism by the president’s most ardent supporters for asking uncomfortable questions during his daily press conference.

Last month, López Obrador, commonly called “Amlo”, accused the press of ingratitude and chided them for “biting the hand of the person who removed its muzzle”. He previously told them to pick sides – preferably his side.