Image: Photo exhibition, ‘The Silenced: Fighting for Press Freedom in Mexico’ 2012. CAFOD
Recently, Marcus Roberts wrote about the violence associated with Mexico’s war on drugs. When media are afraid to report the news, there’s another casualty: Informed decision-making and voting. As Dana Priest put it at The Independent, “Readers are unaware of the life-and-death decisions editors make every day not to anger different local cartels”:
As deadline descended on El Mañana’s newsroom and reporters rushed to file their stories, someone in the employ of a local drug cartel called with a demand from his crime boss.
That “someone” was a journalist at another paper, who was known to be an enlace” (a link to the local cartel). The enlace demanded that El Mañana publish a story saying that the mayor had not, after all, paid the cartel $2 million in protection money, as was earlier (probably correctly) reported. And defiance of the cartel can mean death.
The enlaces are part of the deeply institutionalized system of cartel censorship imposed on media outlets in northeastern Mexico abutting the border of Texas. How it works is an open secret in newsrooms here but not among readers.
Mexicans caught in the middle do not have an independent public source of information.
Note: I did not say “unbiased” source of information There is no such thing. Any place we stand when covering a story is our bias. But they do not have a source that represents the interests of the civilian caught up in the war, as opposed to the recognized government or the cartel. That situation makes organizing ground-up citizen resistance more difficult. It is intended to. Resentment against
El Mañana grew so strong two years ago that reporters took the logos off their cars and stopped carrying their identification on assignments.
“The readers hate us sometimes,” Deandar said. “But they don’t know the real risks we go through.”
Risks include 88 Mexican journalists murdered in the last twenty years. El Mañana is in a particularly dangerous position, in the midst of a gang turf war:
Four El Mañana journalists have been killed in the past 10 years. Others survived assassination attempts, kidnappings, and grenade and machine-gun attacks on their offices. Deandar has been shot, kidnapped and had his home set on fire, he said. More.
Social media help, but only if they are anonymous. One woman blogger, an obscure Ruqia Hassan, was decapitated as a warning. That said, social media reporting has grown rife with news unreported by older media, such as El Mañana.
A real disadvantage for older media is that they must be highly visible in order to survive. The new media must be largely invisible for the same reason, which creates a problem for the cartels’ accustomed methods of censorship. Also, they are cheap and easy to get into, with reliability the main criterion for success (apart from staying alive).
What reporters can’t tell the public is that organized crime has taken over Zacatecas, from the deserts to the mountain ranges. Journalists told CPJ that gangs control each of the 58 counties either completely or almost so. In most of the state, they said, control is in the hands of the Zetas, the most vicious and feared cartel in Mexico. The municipal and state police, reporters said, are terrified or have been bought off. Some police stations are abandoned and others have officers who seldom leave the building. Beginning about a year ago, army, navy, and federal police patrols made the main highways somewhat safer, along with a very few rural areas, but the state does not belong to its citizens, journalists said. …
There, journalists express a profound responsibility for their work and an anguish that it can no longer be done properly. Their torment comes spilling out in interviews across the state. In the city of Fresnillo, when CPJ met with a group of reporters, a veteran journalist was on the edge of tears. She stood, head down, chin nearly to her chest. Then she pulled her head up to speak to 12 other reporters, her suffering spread across her face. At first, she said, it was the personal frustration of knowing the reality and not being able to report it. Then, a deeper truth came out. “We have failed the people here who counted on us to tell them what was happening all around us. We had the responsibility to tell them, but we could not. So we failed them.” Some agreed with her. Others said that telling the truth was suicidal and that self-censorship was the only way to survive. More.
That may end up mattering a great deal because the insidious problem facing media over time isn’t censorship or even violence, but self-censorship – what a Chinese freedom advocate has called “the little police station in one’s head.” After a while, one makes life easier by reporting on the garden shows and local charities and choirs. Or something. And it spreads.
As CPJ reports,
While there are correspondents from national news organizations based in Zacatecas, they can’t report the truth either. They are no safer than the local press, and they work under local rules. Even if correspondents were foolhardy enough to file stories that gave a true picture of what happened at the beginning of the Zetas’ takeover and what is happening today, editors in Mexico City tell CPJ, they won’t publish stories that will put their correspondents’ lives in danger. So the Mexican public as a whole has been kept in the dark about Zacatecas. The state has been taken over by homicidal gangsters, and people who rely on the Mexican national press still don’t know.
In short, even the mainstream media outside of Mexico are out of touch and will stay that way.
New media may help in the long run for a structural reason: They feature no “gatekeeper” role such as held by the veteran journalist quoted above, who felt she had failed. New media are more like ham radio operators in an emergency. There are risks, but there is no sense in which one fails in an official duty if one does not take those risks.
See also: ISIS used murdered journalist’s Facebook page Supporters fear that the pretense that she was still alive was an attempt to ferret out less public dissidents.
New media: Information is not reduced by being shared. Why net neutrality is wrong: We share information without reducing it.
The Internet does not need policing to enforce social justice Predicted social class does not determine access
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.