Mexico: Self-censorship or self-defence?

Twenty-six journalists were killed in Latin America in 2006, 10 of them in Mexico. None of the Mexican deaths has been solved.

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Newspaper vendor towards the morning’s end, with only the least popular papers left in hand. He starts off the day at 5am with about 50 of each newspaper, and doesn’t leave until almost 10am when they’re almost gone.

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By Meagan Robertson

CAMPECHE, MEXICO — “Freedom of the press and equality to all! Viva Mexico!”

These are words that Mexicans have been shouting since before independence in 1810. Journalism began in Mexico in the 16th century when a government newspaper and an underground newspaper launched simultaneously. It was the first of Mexico’s many struggles to relay the truth.

In the Constitution of 1857, Freedom of the Press was one of the four new laws. This lasted until Porforio Diaz, a Mexican dictator who ruled for 30 years at the end of the 19th century, retracted the law without explanation. This is one example of direct and non-shrouded government censorship.

Today, the government promotes the country’s free press and modernity as proof of Mexico’s reliability as a functioning partner of first-world countries. Mexico has joined various international human rights agreements, such as the American Convention on Human Rights in 1981, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1998. Both these organisations stress the importance of a free press.meagan1_01.jpg

But “Free Press” isn’t the phrase that often comes to mind for Mexican reporters. Not long ago, Mexico’s attorney general suggested journalists practice ‘self-censorship’ to protect themselves.

Mexican journalists are combating censorship of the media on two levels; official restrictions or self-preservation when dealing with political criticism, and self-censorship about drug related or investigative reporting for fear of being killed.

Two years ago, organized crime reporter Alfredo Jimanez Mota was kidnapped along the Sonora and U.S. border. During that same week, two other Mexican reporters were gunned down, one along the Texas border and the other in Veracruz. Since then, 24 more reporters have disappeared or been killed, according to a tally from Reporters Without Borders.

The public way in which the bodies are left serves as a stark reminder to other journalists. A journalist from Veracruz was killed after writing a story on human rights in the area. His head was found on the front doorstep of his newspaper office.

Despite this, Mexican authorities continue to assure the outside world that freedom of the press is prevalent throughout Mexico. This doesn’t prove that the government has taken steps to enforce it, but more that journalists are on their own to decide how far they should push.

Jose Reveles has been a journalist in Mexico City for more than forty years. He says that even though journalism is dangerous throughout Mexico, working along the border is particularly treacherous.

“In the north of Mexico, on the borders, those reporters have a distinct outlook on what they publish,” says Reveles. “There you know that if you print the wrong thing, you’re as good as dead.”

In several cases, the government doesn’t even need to say anything to get stories slanted their way.

Carlos Gárdenas Montero is the host of a weekly television show and daily radio program in Campeche, Mexico. He says that official censorship is usually unnecessary because the owners and operators of TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers understand that they are dependent on the government for support.

“In a way the owners of newspapers and radio stations are protecting their own self-interests through (self) censorship. They avoid reporting anything controversial in order to avoid political and financial problems,” says Gárdenas.

Gárdenas is convinced that the money needed for the survival of Mexico’s numerous news outlets is subsidized by the government through loans, grants and government advertising.

“For example, in a city the size of Campeche, with only 204,533 people, it’s not possible to support the five newspapers and five television stations we have,” says Gárdenas.

Government influence is a huge factor, not only in the Mexican media, but in all the inner workings of the Mexican society. Two former New York Times correspondents, Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon, wrote the book ‘Opening Mexico,’ an inside look at government control, specifically during the 72-year reign of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). They describe the dirty tactics used, even going so far as to fake black-outs and replace ballots, or take bus loads of people to vote in different areas.

The attempt at turning around the corruption began in 1968 with a student revolt. There were uprisings all over the streets of Mexico City. The final straw for Gustavo Diaz Ortiz, president at that time, was the student marches and speeches. He ordered the police and the army to open fire on a huge student protest at Tlatelolco. Hundreds of students were killed and hundreds more were arrested.

After 40 years as a reporter, Reveles has been around long enough to have seen the result of the PRI losing their hold on power. He says that nothing has changed at all.

“They [PRI] say that some policies have changed, and sure, in theory they might have. But what remains unchanged is the corruption and being bought off.”

He adds that considering the government’s ability to manipulate the politics and control the country’s army, limiting freedom of the press wouldn’t be difficult.

“Censorship exists in all forms of the media in Mexico,” says Jose Colorado Rodriguez, who has worked as a journalist in Campeche since he was fourteen years old. He has been working for the newspaper, Novedades Campeche, for ten years and is currently the head business director. He adds that a small city such as Campeche has more trouble than usual because everyone knows on another.

Colorado Rodriguez says having politicians decide “to become journalists” degrades the image of a reporter’s integrity.

“The media is so often used as a political weapon,” he says. Having a politician write as a journalist adds to the mistrust the public feels for the media. To be a reputable journalist requires objective investigative reporting.

“But who can really blame journalists, at least here in Campeche, for not bothering. Whenever someone actually comes across good information on a sensitive issue, there’s no way anyone will publish it,” Colorado Rodriguez muses.

Paul Knox, chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, was a correspondent in Mexico City for three years while working for the Globe and Mail. He agrees that there is more hesitation to criticize the government than in Canada. This is particularly true for Mexican reporters, because unlike correspondents, they have to live where they’re reporting — and with the consequences.

Knox says that even when people were willing to talk, they would ask that their quotes not be attributed.

“In the case of local reporters, everyone knows who they are, who they’re married to and where their kids go to school,” says Knox.

But correspondents don’t get off scot-free.

“While I worked in Mexico City, the government had a person whose basic job was to read the Canadian newspapers and prepare a report on what they were saying about Mexico. In fact, I met the person whose job it was to follow what I was writing,” says Knox.

Michael Marizco is adamant about reporters covering what needs to be covered, whatever the cost. He has his own online newspaper that prides itself on honesty and investigative reporting: www.BorderReporter.com. Before embarking on his own, he worked as a border reporter in Tucson, Arizona.

“It’s a place for me to write the stories that most of the media doesn’t cover. There are entire genres that are just not covered, questions not asked and things not being done in the mainstream media that really should be,” says Marizco.

Marizco acknowledges that the Mexican government might not be the only one to blame for the corruption in the media system.

“There are two major things that happen on this border when it comes to journalists. Either they’re doing their job and asking independent questions, critical and sceptical questions of those in power, or they’re being bought off in order to control the leaks.”

Being ‘bought off’ can be just as treacherous as digging too deep.

Lupita Escamilla was a popular crime radio reporter in Nuevo Laredo. She took payments to blame one cartel for the others’ misdeeds and paid the price. She was gunned down in the middle of the street and died in the hospital 15 days later with 16 bullet holes in her.

megan3_01.jpgMany drug-related threats come from the Zetas, the enforcers of the Gulf Cartel, the Tamualipas-based narco-trafficking family.

Marizco knows that feeling of unease as a controversial reporter who won’t be bought off. One story he tells is when, two hours after purchasing a new cell phone, he received a text message from an unknown number asking, “How’s your new cell phone? Does it take photos?”

“Just a little intimidation move,” says Marizco. “Nothing on the surface that looks like it’s worth freaking out about, but the reality of that little message was: We know exactly who you are, exactly what you’re doing and this is how fast we can react to you.”

Alfredo Jiménez Mota was kidnapped in April 2005 after uncovering the murder of a Sonora prosecutor by a drug trafficker, and also documenting the rise of an old drug-trafficking family.

Not all reporters agree that life as a correspondent is necessarily less dangerous than that of a local reporter. Linda Diebel, who worked as a correspondent for the Toronto Star based in Mexico City for 8 years, says it depends on the type of story covered.

She wrote an in depth book about the assassination of Digna Ochoa, a human rights lawyer, and the (lack of) inquiry afterwards.

“I reject the idea that foreign reporters aren’t doing the same kind of work. It got really scary for me. Granted, Digna’s dead and I’m not, but I think that if you do those kind of really digging stories, it’s just as dangerous,” says Diebel.

“For some of the stories I was working on, we knew our phones were tapped, and the office was broken into.”

“This has lead to Mexico’s title as the second most dangerous country in the world to be a reporter, second only to Iraq,” says Soberanis of Cronica Campeche, referring to a statistic by Reporters Without Borders. He points to a picture on the wall of him and another friend from Veracruz, who was murdered a year ago.

“His case has never been solved.”

Unfortunately, this phrase seems just as common as “Viva Mexico.” There’s more on the line than one’s integrity as a reporter; it may be a life.

Colorado Rodriguez worked at another newspaper in Campeche, Tribuna, before working for Novedades. He was there when the director had to flee to Miami for two years after a confrontation with another newspaper and the government.

“We used to work nights,” says Colorado, “and I was there the night that the Azar family, a political power and owners of the newspaper El Sur, had policemen waiting for us outside the office. No one came in or went out for 24 hours.”

Colorado said there’s little that can keep a Mexican from going home for dinner, but fear of being beaten by police is sufficient.

These dangerous circumstances have led numerous news organizations, and reporters themselves, to assign and publish their stories apprehensively. In Sonora State, the newspaper ‘Cambio’ decided to shut down temporarily, because of repeated grenade attacks on its facilities.

Other media outlets resorted to self-censorship, advice given to them directly by the Attorney General of Mexico, Eduardo Medina Mora, in July 2007. He said that due to insufficient government protection for journalists, self-censorship is a ‘good strategy’ for media to protect themselves.

Medina suggested that journalists working on stories about organized crime should not sign their names to their reports, in order to protect themselves against possible retaliation.

Mexico‘s constitution guarantees citizens the right to freedom of expression, to inform and be informed. But if journalists are afraid physical harm may follow freedom of expression, who can blame them for holding back?

“I think there’s good journalism being done in Mexico,” says Marizco. “I can’t say if there are more clean reporters or if there are more dirty reporters, I just know that they both exist.”

“It’s hard . . . this is not an easy place to get information from. There’s a lot of questions that go unanswered, but more so that go unasked.”