New director of Article 19 Mexico and Central America seeks to generate “empathy” for journalists

By Silvia Higuera and Teresa Mioli

The task in front of Ana María Ruelas, the new director of the Article 19 Mexico and Central America office, will not be simple. In what is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist, she leads a team that fights daily for basic freedoms for communicators: access to information, protection from bodily harm and guarantees to freely carry out their work.

Ruelas, who took over her new post on May 5, oversees a team of 23 people in Mexico City and a larger network of consultants across the country. She is a lawyer and previously worked as an officer for the organization’s Program for Right to Information.

In conversation with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Ruelas detailed her plans for continuing with the work of the organization, which prioritizes working for laws that do not restrict freedom of expression or access to information and for guarantees to protect journalists.

According to Ruelas, when the Article 19 team sees legislation proposed that relates to freedom of expression or the right to information, they seek to participate in the process, whether directly in the legislature or by making legal or political actions related to the law.

This political or legal participation consists of appeals for legal protection against the laws, actions of unconstitutionality against institutions or the creation of alliances with other organizations working to deal with such laws.

“The part of analysis and legislative advocacy is a very strong priority for Article 19, but it is always developed along with other groups of organizations for two reasons. First, because we believe that our voice alone will not lead to legislative change, that’s one issue, and second, as a matter of plurality in ideas and decisions that we are promoting,” Ruelas explained.

But without a doubt, one of the areas requiring a great deal of work from this office is the protection of journalists. The organization recorded 397 attacks, including seven murders, of journalists in 2015. Whatsmore, the organization found that 46.9 percent of assaults on journalists in the past seven years have come from a public servant.

In this regard, as Ruelas noted, the organization documents the daily reality of the country’s press. And while there is a federal protection mechanism for journalists and human rights defenders, freedom of expression experts, journalists and multilateral organizations have repeatedly criticized its efficacy.

In fact, the organization sometimes provides concrete measures of protection, as they call them, including the installation of security cameras or locks in the homes of journalists, or providing cell phones. However, Ruelas is emphatic in saying that they are not the State and that they cannot ensure the protection of any individual. For this reason, other measures that they have taken in the past, like helping to transfer a journalist from one city to another, were eliminated. The organization plans to focus on making sure the State fulfills its obligation to create a more efficient mechanism and to reduce levels of impunity in crimes against journalists.

“Since Darío, for about two years, it was decided we would gamble that the mechanism would work,” Ruelas said, adding that they will have an active role only in very special cases, such as when a journalist does not trust the mechanism.

“Actually, the level of aggression against journalists will not end until you deal with the level of impunity,” Ruelas continued.

Ruelas said, for example, that there was a case in which cameras, installed by the mechanism, showed a public official assaulting a journalist; however, no action was taken against the officer. For this reason, she is convinced that until the problem of impunity is solved in the country, the attacks will not stop.

This does not prevent the organization from working on projects that help to protect journalists. One of these projects is the social media campaign #RompeElMiedo, which was started two years ago to monitor violence against journalists and human rights defenders during protests in Mexico City.

The network of journalists was reactivated this year for coverage of state elections on June 7 and recorded 38 aggressions against the press, including physical aggressions, restrictions to accessing information, robbery of equipment and more. Along with documenting the cases, the organization provides tips on how to document protests, react in case of arbitrary detention, keep in touch with a communication network, etc.

Another priority area for the organization is the right to information. With this topic, the organization focuses on getting information to vulnerable populations and generating public awareness about serious human rights violations or crimes against humanity that have occurred in Mexico in the last 60 years.

In this area and under different appeals for protection, the organization has achieved the declassification of information in the public interest in different cases. One of these precedents led to the opening of information about the Ayotzinapa case in which 43 students from the Normal School of this city disappeared in 2014.

As part of one of the team’s largest projects, Memory and Truth, they are working with civil society organizations and the National Institute of Access to Public Information. Through this project, they seek to publicize all existing information about 15 cases of human rights violations. The information will be separated into public information, declassified information and civil society archives.

“The idea is to put together a puzzle of 15 cases of human rights violations and the statistics of serious crimes like forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary executions, multiple homicides and massacres,” she said.

The organization also is known for its multimedia presence on the internet, using video, infographics and interactives to explain the challenges facing Mexico’s journalists. Their reach in the country is wide, as evidenced in reporting projects that capture first-person accounts from journalists who have been attacked or threatened.

For example, in their 2015 web documentary “State of censorship” and accompanying interactive site (available in English and Spanish), the organization detailed the cases of five journalists who have faced serious threats for their work. The visually engaging project, which incorporated video and illustration, brought viewers to Yucatán, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Mexico City and even California to see how the journalists continue their work.

Article 19 Mexico’s reports and infographics are shared widely on social media and in traditional media reporting, making the organization a bellwether for freedoms of expression and of the press in the country.

However, Ruelas said they are looking for creative ways to tell this reality and to make an impact on society without images that are “so aggressive.” According to the director, this tactic initially worked because people were waking up to the reality, but now “people are very tired of hearing about the violence and of living the violence.”

Another idea that Ruelas has is to achieve “empathy” for journalists and the profession. For Ruelas, the organization has been very effective in documenting aggressions, as well as leading legal initiatives, but they have not seen people take on the importance of journalists as sources of information in the public interest and understand their role in democracy.

“The idea is that people start to miss information and then start to miss the journalists, and begin to find them necessary in their lives,” Ruelas said, adding she will know they have achieved the goal when society protests the killings and disappearances of journalists in the country, as they did in Paris after the assassination of journalists from magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Although Ruelas has arrived at her post with new ideas, she said the essence of Article 19 will be maintained.

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.