Ten-year study on violence in Mexico becomes a book and tells how journalists resist, form networks and deal with censorship

Professors Celeste González de Bustamante and Jeannine E. Relly, both from the University of Arizona School of Journalism, have spent the past ten years doing field research, traveling through Mexico and interviewing more than 100 people to analyze violence against the press. Since 2000, more than 150 journalists have been killed in the country, according to the researchers. Mexico is now one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

The study, which has just been released as the book Surviving Mexico, describes the environment of threat and censorship imposed by corrupt politicians and organized crime and how this affects newsroom practices, as well as mental health and social and economic wellbeing of journalists. In some parts of Mexico, the researchers report, there is a "red light, green light" policy whereby journalists must seek permission from organized crime to publish stories.

“In other words, the “bosses” (e.g. members of organized crime groups) outside of the newsroom will either give a ‘red light or green light’ regarding certain pieces of information that they want or don’t want to be published. We need to stress that this is a somewhat exceptional case and does not happen in all parts of the country,” the professors highlighted in an interview with LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

However, the book also tells about the resistance and resilience of journalists in the country, who find ways to continue their work and form support and cooperation networks.

“It is through various forms of resistance that many journalists throughout the country have been able to find deep meaning in their work and personal lives, and they have managed to be resilient in the face of continued pressures that stem from governmental and organized crime groups,” Bustamante said.

The entire interview with Bustamante and Relly can be found below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

LatAm Journalism Review: Why did you decide to start this investigation and what was your main goal? 

Celeste González de Bustamante: We began our study in 2011, at the height violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and when most of the journalists in Mexico who were being killed were from the northern states. We began with the goal of finding out what was happening with journalists who were working in the north, and as we continued with the study, violence spread to other regions of the country, so we expanded to other peripheral states such as Veracruz and Tabasco. We wanted to find out how journalists either in the north or in other states were perhaps changing how they were practicing journalism. We found out that, indeed, they were dramatically altering the way they report and cover their communities.

Celeste González de Bustamante pesquisa violência no México contra jornalistas

Professor Celeste González de Bustamante

Back in 2011, when we began conducting research on the issue of violence against journalists in Mexico, very few scholars were examining the issue. Having studied journalism in Mexico as a historian, I felt compelled and a responsibility to document and research what was happening to journalists contemporarily. We then discovered, through our research, that journalists were not sitting idly by as violence swept through their communities and as their colleagues were being killed. They were resisting in important ways that strengthened the work of journalists and connected directly to levels of resilience. We wanted to focus on those journalists who continue to do the work to inform their communities despite extreme challenges.

Jeannine E. Relly: There were many inspirations behind the book. The year that we started the project followed a particularly deadly year for journalists being killed in Mexico, the highest number of killings of journalists in Mexico since the government started to publicly count those cases. It was the year after the Mexican government set up the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression and the year that the Mexican constitution was amended, obliging the government to prevent human rights violations and investigate and prosecute perpetrators. In one city alone, Ciudad Juárez, just across from El Paso, Texas, nearly 3,000 individuals were killed in 2010. We were hearing a lot about the situation related to violence from journalists across the border in Mexico and had written about the issue as journalists in the 1990s. The situation got to the point in the border region where we felt like we had to do something.

After working on several smaller projects that focused on the violence against journalists and how they negotiated it, online and offline, we realized how very resilient journalists were and decided to look through all of our transcripts of dozens and dozens of hours of interviews to look at how journalists in Mexico survived. And what we found was myriad ways in which journalists resisted the status quo and in fact worked together to bring news to their communities and to help one another. Theirs is a remarkable history and often demonstrates resistance and resilience in environments that often are unthinkable for carrying out the work.

LJR: What do you think are the main findings of the research? 

CGB: First, we found that when and where journalists were working in Mexico greatly influenced their ability to practice journalism, and the extent to which press freedoms existed. The journalists who were most at risk were those who were working in what we call the periphery or extreme (double) periphery. These journalists were far removed from the political and economic centers, had less access to training, and often, were working in locations where organized crime groups and corrupt government activities prevailed. In other words, history and geography matter when it comes to press freedoms.

Second, we found that journalists, in peripheral zones and extreme peripheries have been very innovative in the ways that they’ve responded to increased constraints. We identified many of their responses as forms of resistance. We found evidence of resistance that ranged from the individual level actions to collective action, such as the formation of journalists’ networks, including the Red de Periodistas de Juárez, Periodistas de a Pié, the Red de Sonora, among many others.

Third, our study found that there is a connection between resistance and resilience. It is through various forms of resistance that many journalists throughout the country have been able to find deep meaning in their work and personal lives, and they have managed to be resilient in the face of continued pressures that stem from governmental and organized crime groups.

JER: In addition to these overarching findings, we found that different types of networks were created, organically and formally, hyper-locally, nationally, regionally and globally, which often sustained journalists in the country and even strengthened their ability to continue their work and to deal with the trauma that many of them witnessed and/or experienced. Those networks included intergovernmental organizations (various UN organizations), transnational and domestic NGOs, including human rights, press advocacy and other civil society networks; academics from inside and outside of the country; legal and policy networks; and networks related to psychological well-being and health, among other collective and networked initiatives.

LJR: You started the research in 2011, so it's been ten years since you began investigating the subject. During that time, what do you think has changed? 

CGB: The overall levels of violence in Mexico have been mercurial and therefore, the pressures and constraints that journalists face have changed and moved from state to state. When we first began, the violence was primarily in the north, now it has reached most parts of the country, and it ebbs and flows, depending on the local circumstances. This has dire consequences for journalists.

Ten years after we began this research, scores of journalists have been killed. Over the past twenty years, more than 150 have been murdered – on average, a journalist a month is killed. Whether it’s the PAN [National Action Party], PRD [Democratic Revolutionary Party] or Morena in power, the murders of journalists continue. Laws have passed making it a federal crime to attack a journalist or human rights worker, but the attacks continue and are increasing by some accounts. The pandemic added more complexity to an already difficult situation.

On the other hand, important journalism collaborations and networks have been formed, and journalists have been working across states, across countries to continue to investigate and uncover wrongdoing. An increasing number of journalists are being trained as a result of some of the local, regional and national level networks that have been established. We discuss these organizations and their work at length in the book. As we’ve stated, unfortunately, “in Mexico, too many journalists have died, but journalism is far from dead.”

LJR: Many of your sources had to remain anonymous for their own safety. Did you interview journalists that were later victims of violence or had to leave the country? How did that affect you and your work?

CGB: At every step of the way when we were conducting our research, we wanted to ensure that those who were involved in our study were not going to be negatively impacted by our research. Knowing the risks that journalists were facing, we took as many precautions as possible. This meant that we constantly had to know what the on-the-ground situations were in various regions of the country, which was sometimes difficult because the environment can change quickly.

Jeannine E. Relly pesquisa violência no México contra jornalistas

Professor Jeannine E. Relly

JER: We did interview journalists who had already left the country and others who had to move from one region to another. Two of the journalists whom we interviewed have passed on, at relatively young ages, yet not directly from the violence targeting them and their colleagues. Their lives, nonetheless, were very challenging.

LJR: What kind of constraints did you discover to the work of journalists and what surprised you? In the book you address the red light, green light policy. Could you talk a little bit about what this is and how it works?

CGB: We found that there is a wide range of constraints that journalists confront in Mexico. They range from those that happen on the individual level, where journalists are told not to cover certain topics, or are told to cover others, to being threatened at gunpoint or beaten or killed in the most extreme cases. The constraints could come from inside and outside of the newsroom.

The “red light, green light” policy, is perhaps another extreme case, in which journalists are forced to answer to the organized crime groups who, beyond the editors in the newsroom, determine whether a news outlet can publish or not. In other words, the “bosses” (e.g.  members of organized crime groups) outside of the newsroom will either give a “red light or green light” regarding certain pieces of information that they want or don’t want to be published. We need to stress that this is a somewhat exceptional case and does not happen in all parts of the country. One of the most common responses to constraints is journalists being forced to self-censor as a means of protection.

LJR: In the book, you talk about trauma and resilience among journalists. How has this environment of violence and threat affected their ability to work and their emotional, social and economic wellbeing? 

JER: The overall conditions for journalists in Mexico and many other countries is a challenge to emotional, social and economic well-being. Pay is low, workloads are high and conditions are dangerous at times. Since journalists often are first-responders similar to professions such as emergency medical workers, aid workers, and healthcare workers, they either witness or hear about traumatic, painful or challenging events through secondary recall from sources whom they regularly interview. This coupled with overworking, hectic and unpredictable schedules, skipping meals and being concerned for themselves and their families, has a great impact. Many live in communities where they are not able to seek out counseling, even if they had the funds or services were provided to them, because of lack of trust, stigma or risk to them or their families. Some have sought out support through the federal mechanism system or local government support system and have had trust or other issues. Panic buttons issued from the federal mechanism have not always worked or responses to dire situations have been delayed or not always received in time.

Journalists have found myriad ways to cope and in many cases, they have demonstrated resilience. They have formed online and offline communities around one another or shared project areas, emotional support, or professional development. They also developed individual and collective coping methods that have been shared with one another and shared out. They also have worked on investigative projects together, organized mass protests for public awareness and interacted directly with those in the government. All of this has added meaning to extremely difficult conditions and at the same time been outside of their work.

LJR: Your book also explores the solutions and public policies to deal with this problem. What measures and solutions would you highlight as the most important and promising and that could also serve as an example for other countries?  

CGB:  The situation in Mexico is complex and multilayered, so any solutions related to the lack of freedom of expression and the continued violence against journalists have to be comprehensive and be multi-leveled. We found that the emergence of collective networks on the local, regional and national levels to be a bright spot in a very dim and evolving and frequently changing environments. Because public policies – though they look great on paper – have not been able to ameliorate the situation, the work that journalists are doing – taking matters into their own hands to protect themselves seem to have the greatest impact.

In our “intellectual roadmap” for the future of journalists’ safety, we recommend that journalism communities (journalists, NGOs, journalism educators, activists) continue to do their work in the form of training each other and publishing in ways that are permissible.

We recommend strongly that media owners take more responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of their employees – this includes reducing journalists’ economic precarity, paying journalists a living wage; training journalists on how to report on topics that come with increased risk; providing benefits; increasing independence from political and economic interests on the local, regional and national levels. So far, those news media outlets that offer protections and training for journalists tend to be exceptions.

In addition, we recommend continued funding and support for the journalism networks that have formed over the course of the last twenty years. We argue that structural changes in governmental policies must also change in order to increase independence among news media at the local, regional and national levels. Some of these structural changes include reducing economic dependency on governmental “subsidies” of news media outlets in terms of official advertising. This practice has resulted in a form a “soft censorship” that has been detrimental to independent journalism.

JER: We dedicate a chapter to analyzing numerous initiatives, programs, policies, laws, constitutional amendments, presidential administrations, outside interventions, inside interventions and most anything that one could think of to address the issue of attacks and killings of journalists. Many caring and brilliant journalists, press advocacy organizations, public officials, citizens, human rights defenders, politicians, academics and others have put energy into addressing these issues in myriad ways, in systematic methods that one would be challenged to find elsewhere. The fact that the assaults, abuses, disappearances, and killings continue demonstrates how complex the situation really is at the national, state and local levels.