Regional press at risk in Mexico, Honduras, Colombia and Brazil, the most dangerous countries for journalists in the Americas

“I need a gun,” is what a journalist requested as a safety measure to work in Veracruz, one of the most dangerous places for the Mexican press. After the request, Daniela Pastrana, of the Mexican organizationJournalists on Foot (Periodistas a Pie) responded to that journalist that a fire arm was not the solution, but her colleague from Veracruz insisted: “I don't want the gun to defend myself, but to make sure they don't catch me alive." The reporter's response came after five Mexican journalists were found dead with signs of torture in the last 30 days.

Pastrana represented Mexico on the Monday, May 21 panel titled “The Most Dangerous Countries: Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, and Brazil” during the 10th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas. This year's Forum focuses on Security and Protection for Journalists. Mexico is the most dangerous country for journalism in the Americas after seven journalists were killed in 2011 and five journalists killed so far in 2012. The panel also included Héctor Becerra from Honduras, where 29 killings have been registered since 2010, as well as Ginna Morelo, from Colombia, and Marcelo Moreira from Brazil.

Torture is the latest way to kill journalists, Pastrana said. Other trends identified in attacks against the press include frequent attacks on media headquarters with explosives, infiltration of organized crime in the newsroom, the killing and kidnapping of female journalists, as well as the killing of journalists reporting via online social networks.

Pastrana said that her organization documented 14 forced disappearances of Mexican journalists, however, family members have resisted reporting missing journalists out of fear of retaliation in Tamaulipas. Pastrana also called attention to the loneliness of journalists.

Pastrana, also a Mexican journalism professor, said that the current situation is due to the democratic transition in Mexico, which started in 1990 and reached its climax in 2000, but concentrated in Mexico City and a few other cities, but never made it through the rest of the country. “For the majority of the press there was never a democratic transition nor opening. The same forms of reverence toward a mayor or governor still exist,” she said.

To prevent this situation from getting any worse, Pastrana said that journalism and media organizations need to grow stronger to provide emergency attention and emotional support to journalists at risk, as well as training to lower risks and strengthen security in the region.

Meanwhile, Héctor Becerra of the Committee for Freedom of Expression in Honduras (C-Libre), denied that the killings and attacks against journalists in Honduras are due to the high crime rates in the country, which is considered the most violent in the world. To prove this, Becerra presented a list of countries, like El Salvador and Venezuela, that have high homicide rates for every 100,000 inhabitants and where it is rare to hear about a journalist killing. The level of impunity reaches such in Honduras that none of the 63 killings of police officers have been resolved yet. “Even crimes against the police are not investigated," he said.

Ginna Morelo, a journalist of the newspaper El Meridiano in Colombia and president of the Newsroom Council, warned about the growing self-censorship due to risks and threats against regional journalists in the country covering topics such as land possession conflicts and threats from criminal gangs. Some investigative journalists such as Mary Luz Avendaño have opted to live in exile.

Meanwhile, Marcelo Moreira, Brazil's Globo TV editor and president of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), said that authorities and the national press showed indifference toward the six journalists killed in Brazil in 2012. Moreira said that to kill the messenger is the nature of the crime, which is a crime against society, but these regional cases hardly ever make it to federal courts.

At the end of the panel, the journalists of these countries concluded that regional journalism needs to grow stronger to finance investigative projects that can reflect the agenda of the national press.

This year's Austin Forum, May 20-22 in Austin, Texas, is themed "Safety and Protection for Journalists, Bloggers, and Citizen Journalists," and is organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Latin America and Media programs of the Open Society Foundations. More than just an annual conference, the Austin Forum is a network of organizations that focus on media development and training in Latin America and the Caribbean. Previous Forums have focused on such topics as Media Coverage of Migration in the Americas and Coverage of Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.