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Mexico is reeling from another round of brutal murders. Four journalists and photographers who covered the police beat have been killed in the state of Veracruz. That's led to a new call for the Mexican government to protect journalists in a country where more and more reporters self-censor out of fear. NPR's John Burnett reports from Mexico City.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The ceremony to remember Mexico's most recent slain journalists took place last weekend on the steps of the Monument of Independence between statues depicting peace and law, concepts sorely needed in Mexican journalism today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

BURNETT: As the names of murdered journalists were called out, the emotional crowd responded: He shouldn't have died. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 2006, more than 45 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico. Some press advocacy organizations put the number much higher. They are collateral damage in an organized crime free-for-all that has killed more than 50,000 Mexicans in that time period.

Last Thursday, the dismembered bodies of two news photographers, a former photojournalist and another woman, were found stuffed in sacks floating in a canal in the port city of Veracruz. Five days earlier, the body of Regina Martinez, an investigative reporter for the respected news weekly Proceso, was found in her bathroom beaten and strangled.

After the journalist demonstration, a Veracruz-based reporter who fled to Mexico City for his safety sat down in a cafe over coffee. He asked to remain anonymous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: The thing that characterized her reporting is that Regina gave voice to the vulnerable, to indigenous people and to the oppressed. The situation of journalism in Veracruz has reached very high levels of fear. Perhaps it's safer for reporters to only say what others tell us and never investigate.

In fact, this is already the state of journalism in many Mexican states where the cartel war is raging, particularly where Los Zetas are active. This organized crime group founded by army deserters is especially savage against journalists who report unflattering crime news or who take payoffs from rival cartels.

With the upsurge in reporter killings, Mexico has attempted to protect journalists. Six years ago, it created the special prosecutor for attention to crimes committed against journalists within the federal attorney general's office. But it's toothless, says journalism advocate Rogelio Hernandez.

ROGELIO HERNANDEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: The special prosecutor to investigate the cases of journalists doesn't have a budget, a staff or the backing of the attorney general, the interior ministry or the presidency. It's a game, Hernandez says. They have demonstrated total inefficiency, ineffectiveness and ignorance. The Mexican attorney general's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Manuel Clouthier is a congressman from the drug state of Sinaloa and a former newspaper publisher who's currently running a quixotic independent campaign for the presidency. He says it's easier to blame the narcos for threats against the media, but his experience informs him differently.

MANUEL CLOUTHIER: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: The majority of the aggressions against journalists come from those in power, not from organized crime, Clouthier says. Last week, overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Mexican congress approved a bill that would create urgent measures to protect journalists and human rights defenders. Among other actions, it would create a rapid response team that would move threatened journalists to a safe place within 36 hours. The bill awaits the president's signature.

Such a law might ease anxiety in Veracruz, where skittish news directors have reportedly ordered their reporters not to attend the funerals of their dead colleagues, fearing more attacks.

John Burnett, NPR News, Mexico City.

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