Maria Moors Cabot award winners reflect on conflict reporting in Central America, press freedom in Cuba

By Larissa Manescu

For photographer, documentary maker and University of Texas journalism professor Donna DeCesare, full immersion is the only way for a journalist to build the deep relationships of mutual trust necessary to report truthfully about a conflict.

DeCesare spoke during the 2013 Maria Moors Cabot Prize award ceremony on Oct. 23 where she received the prize for her work on gangs in El Salvador.

Other recipients of the award include Jon Lee Anderson, an American author, biographer and journalist at The New Yorker; Alejandro Santo Rubio, the director and editor-in-chief of Colombian newspaper Revista Semana; and Mauri König, an investigative reporter at Gazeta do Povo in Brazil.

The annual Maria Moore Cabot Prizes were first given out in 1939, making them the world’s oldest international awards.

DeCesare used a humanist approach to report on violence in El Salvador by treating those involved with gangs as people affected by their environment instead of criminals. Photojournalism helps to personalize the conflict and dispel misconceptions about youth living in neighborhoods with bad reputations, she said.

“Images can help to build empathy, by creating a kind of family album--as meaningful to the protagonists in the images, as to distant viewers. When photojournalism achieves this it draws us closer, and helps us to see more clearly, that our experiences have points of connection,” DeCesare said in her acceptance remarks.

Also at the awards panel, recipient Jon Lee Anderson, who is recognized for his comprehensive profiles of political figures in Latin America like Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro and has been recently working in Cuba, said press freedom in Cuba is slowly improving but with “1998 speeds on the Internet and an hourly rate that would knock out an average Cuban’s weekly salary,” significant obstacles to freedom of expression still exist.

However, he said that the fact that dissidents have been allowed to freely travel to the United States and return to Cuba demonstrates progress.

“I sense that we may see an opening in the press arena, at least to criticize more openly those aspects of public administration that the regime itself wants to reform. It’s an opening that wasn’t there before,” Anderson said.

One of the persons to take advantage of the Cuban government's change in travel restrictions was blogger Yoani Sánchez. While Sánchez was banned from traveling to the United States to acknowledge an award in 2009, she came to the 2013 New York panel and was belatedly presented the award in a special ceremony.

König talked about how different regions in Brazil had various "trigger reprisals." For example, reporters faced intimidation, threats and repression when covering drug trafficking and organized crime in larger cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, while the controversial topics in the Amazon region and central Brazil are agrarian conflicts and the illegal occupation of public lands.

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.