Q&A: Guatemalan journalist Claudia Mendez studying the rule of law and judicial processes as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard

Guatemalan journalist Claudia Mendez Arriaza, 35, is part of the 2012 class of Nieman Fellows. With 13 years of experience as a journalist -- she has worked as an editor and reporter at elPeriódico in Guatemala, and co-hosted the television show “A las 8:45” -- Mendez was named the 2012 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Latin American Nieman Fellow.

As the deadline for journalists to submit applications for Nieman fellowships and other scholarships approaches, The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas spoke with Mendez about her experiences as a Nieman fellow at Harvard, and how what she is learning is applicable to journalism in Guatemala. After having covered court trials in post-war Guatemala related to the killing of Monsignor Juan Gerardi Conedera, the massacre at Dos Erres, as well as drug-trafficking cases, Mendez now is analyzing judicial errors and how the press replicates them as part of her Nieman project.

Knight Center: How would you characterize journalism in Guatemala today?

Claudia Mendez: It is a journalism with at least two or three new generations of young journalists that are starting new, ambitious and different projects. You can't compare the journalism from five years ago with the journalism of today. Journalism has changed and advanced, but there's a long way still to go. For example, although there are extraordinary efforts in development of local journalism, I still encounter community reporters who repeat to me: "If it isn't in the capital city's media, it didn't happen." Perhaps this reflects a structural vice, outside of journalism, but it is true that local journalism faces a lot of threats and weaknesses these days. However, you can find stories like the one a colleague covered on the southern coast: repeated stories about corruption in the city government achieved structural changes not only in the administration, but also in the perception of residents toward authorities.

KC: Why did you apply for the Nieman fellowship, and how did you react when you found out you won?

CM: In 2007, a Guatemalan ex-Nieman fellow, Julio Godoy, the first Guatemalan journalist to win this fellowship, told me about the Nieman Foundation and encouraged me to apply. At the time I had recently finished my master's in Hispanoamerican literature: I had finished the master's at the same time I worked full-time at elPeriódico, so I needed a break from academic life. I am in debt to Julio Godoy, I still have the emails from him, two years later, that excite me all over again to apply for the scholarship.

There were more people than Julio Godoy who encouraged me, like Jean Marie Simon, a lawyer who graduated from Harvard, whose efforts to discuss violence and the consequences of the war in Guatemala, through photography and education, spoke to me about the Nieman Foundation and was a person who since 2010 encouraged me and supported me in the application process. And then at the forum at the University of Texas at Austin, I met Cecilia Alvear, who gave me the final push...Ex-fellows like Raúl Peñaranda gave advice about how to apply and prepare me for a year there. And from Guatemala I counted on the unconditional support of my bosses: Juan Luis Font and Ana Carolina Alpírez. I mention all these names because they were determinants, the chats with each one, each answer and advice that was sent via email, in why I applied for this fellowship: because there were people that encouraged me to do it, colleagues and mentors that had confidence in me and pushed me to do it.

And how did I react upon winning? I am a woman characterized by my Christian faith, so when I found out I had won, I was full of gratitude for this gift from God. I had all these emotions, that quickly changed into mental exercises to set goals to take advantage of this opportunity to the fullest.

KC: What have your experiences at Harvard been like? What have you learned?

CM: I've learned a lot. There's a lesson everyday: re-think learned concepts. Or re-think what I've been taking for fact. The discussions with professors, students, the methods and the teaching is different and I believe that Harvard has new questions everyday for its students, for them to discover and re-discover the world around them. I had an idea, for example, about the concept of the rule of law and this was part of my statement of purpose when I was applying to study here. In one class the concept was completely transformed and forced us to re-think if there really is a concept of the rule of law in the world and who defines it? Governments? The public? Also, a class on 19th century literature really opened my eyes to how many current journalism practices were based on literary techniques.

KC: What has been your favorite experience as a fellow?

CM: There have been a lot. From joining a work group in conjunction with the Kennedy and Law School where we did field work in judicial system offices in Boston, to discovering my new form of transportation here in Cambridge: a bicycle! There are have been a lot of experiences: spiritual, personal, intellectual, professional. I can't emphasize enough the importance of having a relationship with the other fellows, who offer tremendous knowledge from their experiences practicing journalism around the world.

KC: Describe your project, what is it? What interested you in this topic? How do you plan to apply this project?

CM: The project is still in its infant stage: an analysis on judicial errors that the press replicates. The impact of the press on judicial errors and if the press plays an integral role in these processes. It interested me because I've been a witness to how lives are affected by not only judicial errors but also journalistic ones.

KC: When will you return to Guatemala and what are your plans?

CM: I suppose in July. I'm planning to take up my old job again and apply these new ideas right away.

KC: How can you improve or change journalism in Guatemala with what you've learn at Harvard?

CM: Sharing and educating. The direction of journalism changes depending on who's writing and what knowledge and experience we share with new reporters; to excite and feed their curiosity, to ask more questions than necessary, generate debate about our role and how we perform it.