Seminar Highlights Mexican Journalists' Vulnerability

The violence that surrounds drug trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico border makes it among the most dangerous and difficult beats any journalist can cover. Twenty six reporters from both sides of the border who cover this beat  gathered at the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in Austin, Texas on March 26 and 27, 2010 to discuss how to stay safe and get stories out at a seminar sponsored by the McCormick Foundation.

The stories they shared with each other and outside experts — including Donna DeCesare, the Dart Center's Latin America coordinator — identified challenges that go to the heart of their ability to remain resilient and report the reality in which they live.

The violence between rival organized crime syndicates, police and army is regularly referred to as war; while journalists at the meeting had differing opinions about whether “war” was the appropriate term, there was agreement that the increase in drug-related violent crime and the militarized response have a similar effect on the population: citizens are often caught in the crossfire; journalists are intimidated, threatened and attacked; and approximately 10,000 people have been killed since the beginning of 2009.

According to DeCesare, the pervasive violence means that the greatest challenge these journalists face is not strictly professional; it is the disintegration of social cohesion and trust occurring in their own communities. "This violence is really sowing tremendous sorrow, distrust and pain very broadly throughout the society."

That sorrow and distrust is compounded for local journalists, who not only live in that society, but report on its most traumatic events and face regular threats for simply doing their jobs. Having seen 26 journalists murdered for their work covering the drug trade since 1993, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, they take those threats seriously. DeCesare lists the questions they ask: "How to stay safe and still report? How to maintain your sensitivity? How to manage your fear so that you can continue to do the job? And how to recognize when the danger really is targeting you or your reporters?"

Part of the answer has been to change reporting practices. For example, photojournalists covering crime in Mexico, like photojournalists the world over, used to try to be the first person to the scene. DeCesare says: "Now photographers do not want to get to the crime scene first, ever, because often the perpetrators are still there and will come to the photographer and demand to see the images to make sure they actually did kill the person."

At a larger scale, threats can stop journalists from reporting stories at all. As Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman reports:

The result is what the reporters called "zones of silence" that cover entire regions in areas of conflict. The strategy of intimidation reached its height in recent weeks in the border city of Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from Hidalgo and McAllen and just a 4½-hour drive from Austin. While severe drug violence has plagued Juárez for years, it arose in Reynosa much more recently. Since the beginning of the year, dozens and perhaps hundreds of killings have gone unreported there, leaving residents in the dark about the basic facts of a drug war exploding in their city.

All the journalists at the seminar were committed to finding ways to tell these untold stories, but the need for new approaches, training and resources to do so were evident. Mónica Medel noted in her report for the Knight Center blog: "To issue an alarm about the problem and the urgent need to deal with practical measures was one of the main outcomes of this meeting." The Dart Center will remain engaged in seeking ways to help meet this need.