‘I know I stray away from local patterns, and that puts me in danger’: 5 questions for Mexican journalist María Teresa Montaño

The year 2023 has provided unprecedented international recognition for Mexican journalist María Teresa Montaño, who for nearly three decades has dedicated herself to investigating corruption in the state of Mexico, the country's most heavily populated. Last month, she was announced as one of the recipients of the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women in Media Foundation (IWMF).

On May 31, she published — in partnership with the organization Forbidden Stories, the British newspaper The Guardian, the Spanish newspaper El País, and the Mexican news outlet Aristegui Noticias — an investigation that points to an embezzlement of 5 billion Mexican pesos (about US $300,000,000) by the government of the state of Mexico. Administered by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for 94 years, the state elected Delfina Gómez, of the Morena party (the same as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador), five days after the publication of Montaño's investigation.

These triumphs, however, are marked by the violence and job insecurity that affect so many journalists who challenge power in Mexico and across Latin America. In August 2021, while investigating fraudulent government contracts in the state of Mexico, Montaño was kidnapped, beaten and threatened in Toluca, the state capital. Three men, who to this day have not been identified, also broke into her home and stole her notes and work materials. And they threatened to return to kill her and her son if she reported them.

"I was never the same again," she told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). In addition to the trauma, Montaño has since dealt with the impunity of this crime, which has yet to be solved by state authorities. She has had to leave the country twice and today lives with an bodyguard, a security measure determined by the federal government's Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.

In conversation with LJR, Montaño spoke about the difficulties faced by journalists who investigate unlawful acts at the local level in Mexico, including the challenge of sustainability. Founder and editor of The Observer, she said the digital news outlet has kept on "between ups and downs" since 2017, but she is not sure she will be able to continue doing journalism. "If I don't find any resources soon, I don't know what will happen. Maybe I’ll have to do other things. But I feel that what I might do in journalism, I’ve already done," she said.

Read below the interview with María Teresa Montaño, which has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

1. You decided to launch your own news outlet, The Observer, after many years working as a reporter in consolidated media in Mexico. What led you to launch your own news outlet and what lessons have you learned in this venture so far? 

María Teresa Montaño: I actually combined it, until recently, with another national news outlet, [working] as a correspondent and running the outlet. I launched the news outlet because I realized, as a correspondent for national media, that due to their advertising commitments, they could not publish some things that were important for the people of the state of Mexico to know. Some things were censored. That’s why I decided to launch it, above all to focus on what I believed was being avoided by many national news outlets, which was the issue of the corruption of the political class in the state of Mexico. The corruption mechanisms they were pursuing, how public money was being plundered, and these relationships among the political class that were not so clear to the population at the time of going to the polls.

Because I am in an area where the media is tightly controlled, the first thing I realized was that it was going to be very difficult to sustain it, because there is a great dependence on official advertising. At the beginning, we resorted to different strategies: We organized events and then we also started looking for international funds. We obtained very important support from Google during the COVID-19 [pandemic], and from there we began to consolidate the project and the team. We also managed to get a scholarship that the State gives to young people who want to learn a trade, and I trained some journalists directly with the investigative ‘chip.’ Well, in sum, it’s very difficult to sustain an independent news outlet. Sometimes they give us a little publicity, and since they already know what our line is, they don't even dare to propose to control our editorial line, they simply put an ad banner for some time and that's it. And that’s how it’s been sustained, with its ups and downs.

2. You were kidnapped and threatened in 2021 in a very serious attack, apparently motivated by your investigation into corruption in the state of Mexico. What was the impact of this attack on your personal and professional life?

The impact has been felt in different areas of my life. I was never the same again. I’ve never been able to get back on public transport, because it was a fake cab [where the men who attacked her were]. To date, I’ve not been able to recover that part, the confidence, let's say. Another area that changed my life is that I had to report it to the federal government's Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders, and since then I’ve been assigned a security detail, which means I have to be accompanied at all times. And that is very difficult. I have round-the-clock security and when I go out I have bodyguards. I’ve also had to deal with the trauma of the kidnapping. I had panic attacks. I’ve received some temporary therapies. I had to leave the country, because I was not sure where the attack was coming from, and besides the kidnapping, they threatened to kill me and to come back for me and my son. I left the country twice, with the support of international organizations.

To date, the kidnapping [case] has not been solved. The state government quickly, three days after [the attack], came out saying the kidnapping had nothing to do with my journalistic activity, but they have not solved it, so I have no idea where they got that from. What I do know is there were attempts to fabricate culprits. They were sending me, by informal means, photos of people [suspects] and they wanted me to choose some of them. Obviously, I spoke clearly with the Public Prosecutor's Office and said I would not lend myself to that, because it’s an issue that I fight against as a journalist, the fabrication of guilty people, of innocent people who are accused, and then they stopped doing that. Besides, they did it directly through my telephone, without any formalities, without contacting the lawyers, my defense attorneys, nobody. And they did that on two occasions and sent me many photos, so for me it was a clear indication they were trying to come up with a guilty party. And, because of that, my distrust of ever receiving justice has grown. I have not received it to date. There is impunity in my case, as is the case of 90% of the journalists attacked and murdered in this country. And well, this totally changed my life. There was also a strong revictimization. In the local media, the state government coerced through advertising and illegal payments to journalists close to me, and they distanced themselves from me completely. I was alone. So, I’ve received more support from the outside than from the inside, from my fellow investigators who are journalists from other states, who are well-known, or from organizations that sheltered me. I received more support from outside than locally, because the media I launched and the way I have steered the type of journalism I do, I know that I stray away from local patterns, and that puts me in danger.

3. Days after the publication of your most recent investigation into government corruption in the state of Mexico, the state elected for the first time a governor from a party other than the PRI. The future governor belongs to the same party as the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has promoted a stigmatizing discourse against journalists during his presidency. What do you hope will change for journalists working in the state under this new government? 

The first thing we hope is that the level of pressure against journalists will drop. It’s very difficult to talk about issues of institutional violence when they are low level. They are not seen from the outside, but journalists suffer from it. There is great coercion, pressure and repression against the type of journalism that does not conform to official protocols. There is great pressure on our colleagues when they want to exercise their freedom of expression in a free manner. They are contacted from outside, they are threatened, they talk to their bosses. There have been lay-offs, it happened to me in 2020. They talk to their bosses and demand they be fired. I was fired from El Heraldo de México for publishing in The Observer and, more than that, it was because I submitted many requests for information [to the government] and they did not like it. I received some early warnings to stop doing it. I looked for strategies to keep asking, like asking under a pseudonym. They didn't like it, until [one day] I was fired. Things like this continue to happen and what we want is for this type of institutional violence or communication policy against our colleagues to stop.

The local protection mechanism [for journalists] was created thanks to initiatives of rebel journalists like me, who promoted the local law for the protection of journalists and the creation of the mechanism, which had our direct involvement, but in the end we were left out. It does not work because journalists from the current regime, which is about to leave, have been put in place. So what we are asking and hoping for is for this mechanism to actually work and be run by real journalists. Not by people from the elite who you don't know where they came from and who in some cases are not even connected to the media. And we also want to present a petition to regulate the issue of publicity, which should be given to encourage freedom of expression and not to coerce and persecute journalists.

4. In addition to the president's stigmatizing discourse, violence against journalists in Mexico shows no signs of diminishing, as does the impunity of the aggressors. How do you assess the situation of journalists in the country and the role of state institutions in this scenario during the past five years? 

Indeed, the president’s discourse, stigmatizing certain journalists, almost all of them very prominent [journalists], do not contribute to improving the environment for freedom of expression at the local level. In fact, I believe it aggravates it. On the other hand, it seems to me this inhibits local governments from really focusing on addressing the aggressions and murders that are taking place, especially in the states. So the president’s discourse does not encourage much to improve the prosecution and investigation of these crimes against freedom of expression, because the governments have already realized that the easiest thing to do is to blame the president and he keeps on making verbiage, even though the responsibility is theirs. Most of the crimes that have been committed against journalists have been in states that have high rates of violence, and because they are crimes that are prosecuted ex officio at the local level, they don't do it. They simulate [investigations] and leave them there abandoned, while the president continues with these attacks on some colleagues from well-known news outlets, which at the end of the day are also crimes against freedom of expression. I believe politics is not helping even though there is a Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists at the federal level, which from my point of view has been more efficient than those that exist in the states. I believe that urgent adjustments are required in the policy of attention to these crimes. Not even coordination. I believe the President should demand from the states to attend to these crimes. That would be much better than continuing to stigmatize and slander journalists, whose writing he does not like. I think that would be more useful. And there are other pending issues, such as the standardization of advertising at the federal level.

5. Why did you decide to pursue journalism and why do you continue to choose journalism after all these years?

I think journalism chose me in a way, because I came to it by accident. Although as a child I wanted to do something else, I loved reading newspapers. Newspapers and everything in print I could get my hands on, I read it. In Mexico, there are many comics and I used to read everything that my uncles and aunts, my father brought to my house... And that's how I got here. I was already a journalist when I started college, through an open university system, I attended college on weekends. And recently, during the pandemic, I got a master's degree. And I've been asked why I do journalism, and over the years I always think that it's my way of improving the world. I think we all come to shine our light in some way to improve the world and this is my way of doing it. I’m not sure I can continue doing journalism, because right now I’m going through a very complicated situation. I no longer have a job where I was working, writing for a very famous magazine here in Mexico, so I’m practically broke. If I don't find any resources soon, I don't know what will happen. Maybe I’ll have to do other things. But I feel that what I might do in journalism, I’ve already done.