A friend of mine is an investigative reporter with a national Mexican newspaper. He has been covering crime and corruption for decades. But the last time I saw him, he was not at ease.
We met recently for coffee at a busy
Such paranoia among the Mexican press is pervasive, and with good reason.
This culture of virtual impunity has resulted in widespread self-censorship among the Mexican media: some news outlets stick to vague details and mundane facts; some skip author bylines; others forego drug-related coverage all together. One Reuters photographer recently described how his attempt to cover the murder of 72 people in Tamaulipas State unraveled. Even writers like my friend, based in the relative safety of the capital, watch their words.
“What are we supposed to do? We have to take these measures; we have to censor ourselves,” says Don Teodoro Rentería, vice president of the Mexico-based advocacy group Federation of Latin American Journalists. “We have been silenced,” echoes Hilda Luisa Valdemar, president of the Federation of Associations of Mexican Journalists, which has endeavored, with admittedly little success, to push the federal government to formalize protections for reporters.
For now, journalists who risk covering drug-related violence have few places to turn for protection. “The reality is that criminal organizations have penetrated every level of government, and filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s office exposes you,” says Francisco Gómez, a crime reporter who has been directly menaced as a result of his reporting. In one instance, Gómez saw his partner threatened at gunpoint. But neither saw the point in going to the police.
So what can the press do? In September, El Diario, a newspaper based in Ciudad Juárez, tried to draw the world’s attention to the problem with a front-page editorial pleading for guidance from drug lords, whom it addressed as “the de facto leaders in this city.” The editorial asked them “to explain to us what you want from us, what you intend for us to publish or not publish, so we know what to expect.” The semi-serious deferential gesture was a reaction to the September 16 murder of El Diario’s 21-year-old photographer, Luis Carlos Santiago; it was the second killing of a staffer since 2008. The paper’s director, Pedro Torres, said he “wanted to provoke a reaction that would call attention to what’s happening in Juárez.”
As the op-ed became international news, President Felipe Calderón met with the CPJ and the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), promising to institute a slate of protections for journalists. He also pledged support for legal reforms to stiffen penalties for the escalating number of crimes against the press. But details are still in the works, and, given the government’s record, it is unlikely that Calderón’s plans will have much of an impact.
But if government inaction is a main culprit, the nature of the news itself has also made life hard for the Mexican media. Even newspapers used to covering the issues of a blighted city like Juárez—crime, a spate of female homicides in the ’90s, NAFTA, immigration—now find themselves facing the demands of coverage that more closely resemble those of war reporting. Border towns like
In many respects, Mexican journalists are ill-prepared for these conditions. And while foreign correspondents assigned to Mexico often go to boot camps with ex-soldiers, who carry out mock kidnappings and teach them to duck and cover from explosions in the wilderness, local journalists, who would benefit from such training, rarely get it. “You see reporters in conflict situations and all they’ve got is a notebook and a pen, and I’ll ask them, ‘Is your phone charged? Does anyone know you’re here?’” says Gómez. “You’d be surprised how many say no.”
Lately, a few blogs, like the anonymous El Blog del Narco and La Parada Digital, have picked up where the mainstream media have left off. But these are no substitute for the sort of established, accountable press that is being diminished by fear and violence.
Last month, the
Maybe, at that point, dignity will extend to the press, as well.
Mary Cuddehe is a writer in