From her pedestal in the middle of Mexico City, the Angel of Independence looked upon the words “They are killing us” and “No to Silence,” written in white letters measuring several feet high. Journalists were protesting against the death of well-known colleague Javier Valdez Cárdenas who was killed on May 15 of this year in Sinaloa.
Just over a month later, white paint covered the cement in the city’s famous Zócalo, spelling out a distress signal almost two people tall: “SOS Prensa”. The remains of the journalist and television channel owner Salvador Adame Pardo had been found in an empty field along a highway in Michoacán. He had been kidnapped three days after Valdez was killed.
It’s this almost routine violence against journalists that has made Mexico one of the deadliest places in the world to be a journalist. But, it has also led to historic collaboration among journalists in that country who are sick at the idea of more colleagues dying.
More than 50 Mexican and international organizations have joined the #AgendaDePeriodistas initiative to build an agenda to confront press violence in Mexico.
The initial phase of the initiative was six working groups, which took place from June 14 to 16 in Mexico City, with the Chilean organization Ciudadano Inteligente as moderator. The objective was to produce a document with specific proposals that will be submitted to entities in Mexico and to international organizations to promote the assurance of complete freedom of expression in that country.
In addition to needing security and protection provided by authorities, Mexican journalists require an organization purely made of journalists to represent them, as well as a revision of their working conditions and better regulation of official advertising.
These were some of the concerns expressed by participants at the June working groups, which was promoted by organizations like Horizontal, Article 19 Mexico and Fundar, among others.
“It’s a long process,” Antonio Martínez Velázquez, co-founder of site Horizontal, told the Knight Center. “It is a discussion that from the beginning has been based on a document. It was a very intense discussion and the document itself is already valuable, but it’s going through a process of selection.”
Just one month after the completion of these tables, a feedback stage is underway that will conclude on July 29. At this stage, each of the more than 500 registered participants will analyze the content of the first document, as well as add comments and suggestions.
The next stage, from July 30th to August 25th, will be to determine definitive proposals for each of the topics studied and organize them according to priority. Then, between August 26 and 31, the plan is to present an immediate work plan.
“I feel that what comes next is the most difficult part, which is first to assemble a real community,” Mexican journalist Marcela Turati, who is a participant of #AgendaDePeriodistas as co-convener, said in an interview with the Knight Center. “Perhaps this is the part that requires more work: the time of weaving, of building, so we can ensure that the people present continue to work, and that we can really stay together and create something different, based on what was proposed in this meeting.”
Parallel to the creation of the agenda, the initiative seeks to create an organizational structure to carry out and monitor compliance with each of the agenda items.
Many of the participating journalists agreed that in order to create a safe and secure environment for the press, it is necessary for Mexican journalists to be represented by an organization formed by themselves. Until now, they have been represented by freedom of expression agencies, such as Article 19, Reporters Without Borders or the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), when faced by violence.
“Here it was said that we have to start having a voice," Turati shared. "To no longer rely so much on press freedom organizations, but work in parallel, and we also do our part to see how we represent ourselves to improve this situation, improve precarious working conditions, to see how we can make the system of protection for journalists (of the Mexican Attorney's Office) really work and not leave everything to the organizations.”
While the issue of creating a way of representing themselves is agreed upon among the journalists, what this representation should look like -- whether it’s a union, an association, a forum or a network -- is a polarizing issue.
“It requires a collective entity, an organized entity, a political entity that can represent the interests of journalists the face of public power, or the media itself," Martínez Velázquez said. "In this inconstant context, there were no proper conditions for journalists to organize. The differences between the media outlets grew more and more. The violence was there, so there was no time to foster organization.”
For Martínez, one of the factors that contributes to the creation of a hostile environment to practice journalism is the uncontrolled buying and selling of government advertising, which generates, at least in local governments, a complicity between media owners and the authorities to intervene in editorial lines.
“That was a working table with two opposing visions," the journalist said. "The discussion was on the one hand between the total elimination of official advertising and the effective regulation of it. Still, for some media it is necessary, how could the government not buy publicity and communicate about the latest health campaign, the zika virus, some emergency about hurricanes? That's all official advertising.”
Journalists who would opt to maintain official publicity are struggling to make it transparent and regulate allocation methods.
“The government punishes and withdraws advertising or boycotts very good organizations or groups dedicated to doing critical investigative journalism. And it rewards with much publicity and little transparency those who are like government spokesmen," Turati said. "Advertising can not be assigned that way because that's part of what's killing us.”
Although journalists and press freedom organizations say that the government is one of the perpetrators of violence against journalists, whether by omission or commission, #AgendaDePeriodistas participants do not rule out collaborating with authorities to execute their plans. In fact, some official agencies have already approached them in order to participate in the dialogue. However, initially, the conveners prefer to remain apart from the government.
“We do not want to have dialogue with an authority right now until we have clarity on this agenda and until we are clear about the type of organization we are creating," Martínez said. "Probably within the prioritization of this whole agenda, the authorities - given that they are both perpetrators of violence and guarantors of freedom of expression in this country - obviously will be involved and we will have to tell them. And if necessary, work with them.”
Jeannine Relly, associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, co-authored a study published earlier this year that looked at the possibility that global and domestic networks could push institutional and social change to fight violence against journalists in Mexico.
According to the study and Relly, barriers to forming domestic civil society networks in the past have included lack of time, funding and coordination; competition for resources; fear of speaking out due to violence; imbalances in working conditions between journalists in the periphery and journalists in the capital; and other factors.
Considering the topics of the working tables and reflections from participants so far, Relly sees that many of these issues, along with the major threats to journalists – impunity, faulty protection mechanisms and lack of citizen support – are being tackled.
The professor noted the different groups involved in the current initiative – journalists from 20 states, academics, human rights organizations, the National Commission on Human Rights. “Having them all in one place and working on these issues,” Relly told the Knight Center. “This really takes it to another level.”
As the future organization and agenda are determined, journalists are currently working to ensure that both parts have a good start, so that they can tackle each of the points of their program with force.
Although time is running out and while discussions are taking place, new cases of violence against journalists continue to appear in various parts of the country, #AgendaDePeriodistas is confident that moving carefully and analyzing the issues meticulously is key to ensuring the smooth start of its organization.
“It's probably a lot of work, but that's in no way lost time, but on the contrary,” Martínez said. "Those hours that seem great in number are minimal compared to the crisis that the press and journalism in Mexico is experiencing. And the commitment that journalists are making when volunteering to donate all those hours to meet the agenda seems to me to be a success in itself.”
*Teresa Mioli helped to report this story
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.