Guest post: Saving Mexican journalism

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  • December 14, 2010

Guest post by Luis Manuel Botello, Senior Director of Special Projects-lnternational Center for Journalists (ICFJ):

The Knight Center invited Luis Manuel Botello of the International Center for Journalists to write about his experience attending a summit held in El Paso, TX, where editors, journalists and press freedom monitors gathered to focus on violence against journalists working along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Journalists always live in a state of tension with their work. To uncover the truth, journalists must develop not only a broad understanding of issues of public interest, but they must also have the good journalistic sense to be at the right place at the right time to cover a story. However, for journalists who work in zones of conflict, such journalistic competence can mean death.

Alejandro Hernández Palacio, a TV reporter for Televisa in Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, just wanted to cover a story that would be major news to anyone. The warden at a jail in the neighboring state of Durango was allegedly releasing inmates at night to take part in gang-related executions. Unfortunately, Hernández Palacio could not cover the allegations, because while he was heading towards the jail, he and three of his colleagues were kidnapped by a team of drug traffickers who forced Televisa to air accusations against rival gangs as ransom.

For Mexican journalism, this is hell,” Hernández Palacio told journalists and editors from newspapers on the U.S.-Mexico border at a meeting in El Paso, Texas. Hernández Palacio and his colleagues were freed several days later, after being tortured. This horrible experience led him to abandon Mexico for the U.S., where he and his family are currently petitioning for asylum. “I don’t want to go back, to expose my family,” he said in a voice heavy with emotion, fighting back tears.

The kidnapped journalists in Durango managed to escape with their lives on this occasion, but this was not the fate of another 258 journalists who were killed – or kidnapped and presumed killed – in Latin America over the last 15 years, according to a study by the Impunity Project of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA). The report, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and entitled “Killing the news: Stories go untold as Latin American journalists die,” says that only 59 of these cases have been solved. In Mexico alone, 89 journalists have been killed since 1995, including 19 journalists who have disappeared.

Confronted with this situation, what is to be done? The meeting of editors and journalists, organized by IAPA and the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), was an attempt to foster greater collaborative coverage among journalists from the United States and Mexico. Editors on both sides of the border agreed that there is significant public interest in what happens on the border. About a million people cross the border every day, said Tim Johnson, McClatchy Newspapers’ Mexico City bureau chief.

However, such collaborative coverage will not be easy. There is a certain level of mutual distrust between some journalists in Mexico and the United States. Generally, journalists in Mexico cover armed conflicts without any health insurance and, it is believed, that high levels of corruption have compromised the credibility of some journalists. Alejandro Junco de la Vega, president of Grupo Reforma, says he found it very strange that at times journalists who cover violence arrive late and only take photos and videos of the other journalists who are working. This has also led to a lack of solidarity among Mexican journalists.

On the other hand, since the violence has yet to reach Mexico City, the national press does not invest much into covering the border, leaving only the most vulnerable journalists to cover the war on drug trafficking. In Mexico, the violence has come to at least 12 states, but it has left the capital – the center of news media in the country – untouched.

The challenges faced by journalists on the border and those that cover violence are worrying. However, at the ASNE/IAPA meeting several recommendations were suggested. Clearly, It is imperative for conflict training coverage to continue, and to lead to the adoption of ethical standards for organized crime coverage. Another important need is training on topics related to freedom of expression. Press workers need to be familiarized with the international mechanisms for journalist protection and should work to strengthen their local press freedom monitoring organizations.

These training programs should be decentralized and focus on reaching journalists on the border and in the other states affected by violence. Improving collaborative coverage with journalists on both sides of the border and strengthening the reporting units that investigate journalist killings would help to foster stronger solidarity, while making civil society aware of the importance of preserving a free and independent press.

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.