Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

MEXICO: Journalists Defy Violence, Self-Censorship

Daniela Pastrana

MEXICO CITY, May 2 2011 (IPS) - In Mexico, the country in the Americas facing the worst wave of violence against reporters, different journalistic initiatives are combating this dynamic, which fuels a tendency towards self-censorship.

Radio Chinelo web site.  Credit: Radio Chinelo

Radio Chinelo web site. Credit: Radio Chinelo

“We have learned to weather the storm during times when bullets are raining down,” Javier Valdez, a journalist with Río Doce, a weekly publication in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, told IPS.

“Living in Sinaloa is perilous, and being a reporter here adds an extra dimension of risk. But there is no other option; the alternative is to do nothing,” said Valdez, who has written several books on drug trafficking.

Río Doce was founded in February 1993 by reporters who formerly wrote for the daily newspaper Noroeste. It quickly won a reputation as an investigative weekly, in a state where one of the country’s most powerful drug cartels is based: the Sinaloa cartel headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

In September 2009, grenades were lobbed at the newspaper’s offices. “When we founded Río Doce we never said: we are going to investigate the narcos,” Valdez said. “We just suddenly found ourselves caught up in this mess. Because it’s inevitable. Here and in many other parts of the country, all roads lead to the drug trade.”

The weekly, which began this year to experiment with social networking sites, has four directors, all of whom are journalists – Valdez is one of them – and half a dozen stringers. The publication has ties with business owners, politicians and academics, but the editorial line is not negotiated with anyone.

“We thoroughly check our facts and we have complete trust in each other,” Valdez said. “That is extremely important, because there have been cases of newspapers here where even though a reporter hasn’t signed his article, the next day a police officer mentioned in the story tells the journalist he knows who wrote it.

“We have also had to learn how to administer information, because it’s better for us to put out 10 percent of the information that we have, well-documented, than for nothing to come out at all,” he added.

This year’s theme for May 3, World Press Freedom Day, is “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers”

May 3 this year is also the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration for the promotion of free and pluralistic media – a challenge that is becoming tougher by the day in Mexico.

The 2010 Special Report on Freedom of Expression in Mexico, published in March by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, says that “since 2000 Mexico has been the most dangerous country in the Americas in which to practice journalism.”

The study, which forms part of chapter II of the 2010 annual report by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, emphasises three central concerns: the impunity surrounding the murders of journalists “and other extremely serious acts of violence” against journalists; “the high concentration of ownership and control of the communications media”; and “an emerging tendency to restrict the right to access public information.”

Seventy-two percent of the country’s radio stations are controlled by just 10 business groups, according to the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), which complains that community radio stations in Mexico are harassed and targeted by criminal action.

But as the violence spirals and the two dominant TV stations, Televisa and Telmex, wage war over the telecoms market, alternative or local media initiatives are taking a stand.

In October 2010, in Morelos, a state next to the Mexican capital where drug-related violence is spiralling, a group of young people organised a community radio festival.

The festival gave rise to Radio Chinelo, a community radio station whose aim is to give different sectors of society equal access to the media, to disseminate and debate their problems and ideas.

The “chinelos” are distinctively costumed dance troupes from central Mexico whose origins lie in pre-Hispanic rituals.

“We performed a few times, and used the money we earned to buy computers and a sound booth,” the head of the station’s news programme, Sergio Sánchez, told IPS.

Radio Chinelo has an on-line news station that broadcasts twice a week and played a key role in the coverage of protests against violence and the movement against impunity led by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed Mar. 28.

The first broadcast was on Jan. 8, and the station’s TV programme – TVChinelo – is ready to go on the air, although for now the focus is narrowed to special events.

“At first there were only seven of us, now we are nearly 30,” Sánchez said. “We have gotten advice from other important community stations, like Ke Huelga and Radio Zapote.

“But unlike those stations, which are run by activists and provide information that is very much targeted towards their political base, we try to do a much more open kind of radio programming, with social, cultural and political content,” he added.

Another local project that has managed to overcome barriers is Transparencia para Todos (Transparency for All), which emerged from a programme on access to public information at the Universidad del Centro de México, a private university in the central state of San Luis Potosí.

“We are trying to raise people’s awareness on their right to information, to help them understand that it’s a right that is of use to them in their day-to-day lives,” the coordinator of the project, Samuel Bonilla, told IPS.

Since 2007, he has organised 18 workshops for the public on the use of available tools, like the Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Government Information, approved in 2003.

The 10-week workshops have given rise to a network of trainers who work at public libraries. A book compiling the experiences arising from the workshops will also be published.

Last year, the project was extended to the states of Puebla in the south and Sonora in the north, because Bonilla is a member of México Infórmate, a national network of journalists and academics that promotes the right to information and plans to carry out collective investigations this year, using the transparency law.

The original project included expanding the workshops to cybercafés and university computer centres. But this year, the State Transparency Commission withdrew the funds that it had provided for these activities in previous years.

“We have approached different state and federal institutions that are responsible for promoting transparency, for funds. If we don’t get support from some institution, we will be in a very difficult situation,” Bonilla said.

“But if this takes root, it will severely hamper the current legislative attempts to roll back the progress made towards access to public information,” he added.

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