Editorial guidelines and bulletproof vests: Is there a solution to the violence against journalists in Mexico? (Interview)

In the face of the threats and dangers journalists confront as increasing violence rocks Mexico, various initiatives have emerged as part of an effort to help protect reporters: group coverage so no one journalist can be singled out, bullet-proof vests, and even self censorship. The most recent protection measure is an accord with guidelines specifying how to cover the drug war.

Although many applaud this initiative, not everyone is optimistic. Opinions about the agreement vary depending on the journalist, the media outlet, and even the level of violence in a particular region. The Knight Center spoke with several Mexican journalists who participated in the 12th International Symposium on Online Journalism, held April 1-2 in Austin, about the agreement and what it means for reporters at risk as they cover violence.

For Kowanin Silva, information chief for the newspaper Vanguardia in Saltillo, Coahuila, the agreement is a good idea because it signifies union support and draws more attention to the media in danger zones. “In a way, you join a network and you're not working alone, isolated, trying to inform in your city," she said.

However, she cautioned that the pact needs to be monitored so that it doesn't become just a worthless piece of paper without any authority.

The Agreement for News Coverage of Violence is the first joint media effort meant to put the breaks on the escalating attacks against the media, which have left more than 60 Mexican journalists dead since 2000, nine of which came in 2010 alone. The agreement also sets guidelines for improving coverage, attempting to avoid sensationalism.

Miguel Angel Vargas, online editor for Contexto in Durango said that the safety protocols and guidelines to avoid sensationalism or publishing propaganda of the drug cartels, should be different according to each state. And while he acknowledged that the agreement is at least a step forward, he said it fails to attack the foundation of many of the problems regarding journalist safety: the lack of training and low salaries in the sector.

Vargas said that low salaries make some reporters vulnerable to the temptations offered by criminal organizations, which impacts the safety of their fellow reporters. "They're used by organized crime as people on the inside, in the newsrooms, to know the movements and what is going to be reported on," he said.

Jorge Meléndez, vice president of new media for Grupo Reforma, said the potential for reporters to be on the take is exactly why the newspapers that make up Grupo Reforma never have participated in joint initiatives, and why they have not signed the agreement. They never do joint reporting projects, he said, "because we don't know who we are doing them with."

Another point of argument against the agreement is that criminal organizations adapt quickly to changes, which requires journalists and their means to live in a constant state of "trial and error."

Some times, news that may seems less important or related just to common crime can have unexpected effected. This is why the newspaper Vanguardia has opted to explore the possibilities of publishing news via Twitter and Facebook first, before venturing to print anything in the digital or print editions. "This helps us a bit to measure the ground before making the step to the print publication... This has helped us a bit (as a) thermometer so the people don't feel any news gap," Silva said.

For more information about threats to journalists in Mexico, see this Knight Center map.

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Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.