"It is more dangerous to investigate a murder than to commit one": Journalists confront grave violence in Mexico

  • By Guest
  • September 20, 2017

By Teresa Mioli and Paola Nalvarte

“It’s been 17 years of this red accounting (cuenta roja) in which we have not stopped counting the number of journalists killed. There are 109, and a good part of them in the last two administrations,” said Daniela Pastrana, director of Mexican journalists organization Periodistas de a Pie. “But the counting began, paradoxically, with the start of the democratic transition. That is one of the things that I still cannot explain.”

Pastrana, who was one of the panelists at the Sept. 13 Foro Urgente: “Mexican Journalists Confront Violence” at the University of Texas at Austin, added that 25 journalists are missing in the country.

“I have looked to see what other democratic country has disappeared journalists and there is not one or I have not found them yet,” she followed.

A journalist was attacked in Mexico every 15.7 hours during the first six months of 2017. In just over half of those cases, public officials committed the assaults, according to freedom of expression organization Artículo 19 México. To this point in 2017, media outlets have reported up to 11 murders of journalists. Impunity is the norm in these kinds of cases.

“As a colleague says, in Mexico it is more dangerous to investigate a murder than to commit one,” Pastrana explained.

In light of this increasing violence, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies called an emergency forum with the support of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Mexico Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Panelists included Pastrana, as well as Alejandro Sicairos, founder of Sinaloa weekly Ríodoce, Alfredo Corchado, Mexico City correspondent for The Dallas Morning News; and Ramón Cantú, publisher of El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo. Ricardo Ainslie, director of the Mexico Center of LLILAS Benson, moderated.

Cantú related how the murder of journalists has changed in the last decades, calling attention to the 2004 killing of Roberto Mora García, then-editorial director of El Mañana who reported on the growing problem of drug trafficking on the border.

“At the time, they could not murder him like now, cynically…They put together a whole show they made them [suspects] testify, with false statements, under torture, and we could never reach the truth,” Cantú said. “Now, unfortunately, they are so cynical that they threaten you on the phone, they kill you anywhere, in a bar, etc. You are very vulnerable, we feel very vulnerable.”

Alfredo Corchado, a Mexican-American correspondent for the Texas-based Dallas Morning News who had to flee Mexico in 2007 after receiving word that a hit had been taken out on an American journalist, related how his experience drastically differed from that of Mexican journalists.

“What happened to me immediately was I had all branches of the Mexican government interested in my case,” Corchado explained. “At the same time, I was witnessing what colleagues of mine were going through in other parts of the country, Sandra Rodríguez, for example, in Ciudad Juárez, Ramón Cantú, at El Mañana, and you see the wide gap.”

When current President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012, Corchado said foreign correspondents started to widen the scope of stories published about Mexico –beyond drug trafficking and violence– partly due to the new administration’s insistence that things would change.

However, after expanding coverage to topics like industry development, Corchado took a break to write a second book. About a month ago, he returned to The Dallas Morning News and Mexico to pick up the story.

“The things that’s changed, I mean that you can just see it, is the level of corruption, how that permeates just about everything and anything,” he said.

Regarding the change in reporting when Peña Nieto took office, Corchado said, “I don’t blame myself and I don’t blame other American journalists, other colleagues, but I think we were a little naïve in believing that maybe changing the narrative was good for the country, because I think things have worsened that much more since Peña Nieto came into office.”

Pastrana said she believed that at the beginning of the Peña Nieto administration, media took on a strategy to “make invisible the topic of violence, which never stopped, at any moment.”

That all changed with the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College.

“The question is ‘What do we do? How can we continue to cover these issues because suddenly the bar is very high,’” Pastrana asked. “The issue for me, and the complicated situation, is how do you tell it without it looking like it is the same story from yesterday, and from before yesterday, and before yesterday, and ten years ago.”

Mexico had about 23,000 intentional homicides in 2016, second in a list ranking countries considered in "armed conflict", Reuters reported. Thirty-nine journalists died from the beginning of Peña Nieto’s presidency to August 17, 2017, according to Article 19 Mexico.

Since well-known journalist and Ríodoce co-founder Javier Valdez was murdered on May 17 of this year, some journalists in Sinaloa have resorted to self-censorship, according to Alejandro Sicairos.

“It is necessary to recognize it. After the death of Javier Valdez, neither journalism of denunciation nor investigative journalism is done in Sinaloa,” Sicairos said at the forum. “The journalists, when touching each key of the computer, we see signs of death. We are doing superficial journalism, following what the national media publish, but the reporting we are accustomed to is fading.”

He said there is a division in opinion regarding what type of journalism should be done in Sinaloa now.

“Some of us maintain that we must follow the same line that Javier Valdez did, because otherwise we would be giving reason and purpose to these criminal groups that killed him.” However, he said others say “we should keep brave journalism for other times.”

For Pastrana, this has been a particularly hard year. “We realized that there are no limits, that we are all very vulnerable,” she explained.

“The first six months paralyzed many of us, which perhaps made us sit down to think, ‘what else can I do?’” Pastrana said. “We have gone to many forums (…) we have done everything possible, but the situation not only does not improve, it gets worse.”

The sole woman on the panel, she explained the hardships female journalists face in the field. While men face more direct threats, women journalists are threatened and attacked sexually, and their families are also more frequently targeted, she explained. This leads them to live a sort of double life.

Some panelists appealed to the international community for solidarity, as well as condemnation of the violence and inaction of authorities to investigate and persecute those responsible.

Violence against journalists in Mexico has become more of a topic on the international scale since the death of Valdez, who had many international contacts and was a reference for foreign correspondents reporting in Sinaloa. Increasingly, publications like The Washington Post, BBC News, or Columbia Journalism Review are noting the epidemic of violence against the Mexican press.

“People in Mexico, whether it is the Presidencia, whether it’s the Gobernación, whether it’s the Foreign Ministry, anybody in Mexico, they are going to pay much more attention to what people here are saying, to what people here are asking for, than they do on Reforma Avenue or any other protest that they have,” Corchado said, adding that people outside Mexico can use social media to shame and embarrass the government to get their attention.

Corchado later added, “I do not want to simplify that a Tweet is going to change Mexico, but I believe that to make more alliances with the North American press or with foreign groups is very, very important.”

“The only way this government, of Enrique Peña Nieto, or of Sinaloa, pays attention to us is after receiving international pressure,” said Sicairos. “I wanted to take advantage of this forum, precisely, to insist on what we have told CPJ, RSF, Article 19 and the IACHR, that we have said to them ‘do not leave us alone, do not abandon us,’ because it is not fear for us, it is the fear that from here it will spread to all society, not just journalists.”

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.

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