Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism. Since the ravaging war on drugs began in 2006, journalists have lived with a twofold threat: from the drug cartels, who want to control the flow of information, and from the authorities, who attempt to silence journalists who might reveal the corruption and complicity of the powerful in dealing with organized crime, which has infiltrated every aspect of public life.
Thirty-nine journalists have been killed since the start of Felipe Calderón’s presidency in December 2006, including five this year, and many of the perpetrators go unpunished, as the mechanisms to resolve cases are ineffective. A further ten have been forced into exile. However, this does not mean that those journalists who remain have all lost the determination to do their jobs.
“We don’t want to just be part of a death toll: we want to keep working and keep living, to keep Mexican journalism alive,” says investigative journalist Anabel Hernández, who was driven to investigative work following the kidnapping and murder of her father in Mexico City in 2000. “I am scared for my life and for my children, but one of my greatest concerns is to lose the ability to do journalism, because if I couldn’t do journalism it would be another way to die.”
Hernández, who is now a regular contributor to the daily newspaper Reforma and the investigative news magazine Proceso, received the 2012 Golden Pen of Freedom award from WAN-IFRA today. She has feared retribution from both criminals and high-ranking officials since the publication of her book ‘The Drug Lords’ (Los Señores del Narco) at the end of 2010. The book details the rise of drug trafficking in Mexico and the relations between organized crime and government officials, the police, the military and more. She has been under 24-hour protection from the National Human Rights Commission since then, and her family has been attacked. But she refuses to be silenced, or to leave Mexico.
The seemingly insurmountable challenges that journalists face are deeply entrenched in the Mexican political and social landscape, but there are steps that journalists, publishers and the international community can take to start to stem the violence and offer hope for a future of freedom of expression, Hernández believes.
For a start, when journalists start working on a potentially dangerous story, they should confirm that they have the support of their publisher, Hernández says, and publishers need to be ready to support their staff and assume responsibility if there is a threat or attack on an individual journalist. Many journalists tend not to denounce the threats and attacks that they receive and this means that they miss the chance to get protection. Their publishers in turn fear both physical attacks on their premises and economic reprisal from the government.
Instead, many journalists resort to self-censorship, and simply avoid covering the most contentious issues, but Hernández argues against this, both because of the devastating effect on the public’s right to know, and because publishing can bring its own kind of protection. She does stress, however, the importance of assessing the risks associated with a story, and identifying the best time and the best way to publish so as to minimize the threat.
One way to tackle reporting on the most risky issues is for news organisations to cooperate and cover big stories together, using a pool of journalists, Hernández suggests. This could help to prevent attacks against individuals and specific media houses.
Appropriate training also should be an essential part of the journalist’s arsenal, Hernández recommends. “A big part of the problem is that there is a big lack of training on covering organized crime. We weren’t ready – newsrooms weren’t ready to face these sorts of issues, and the journalists weren’t ready to cover them.” Foreign newspapers could help by setting up exchange programmes with Mexican newspapers, she suggested.
International media as a whole can help by not only narrating the facts but more importantly, by tackling the issue of why this is happening: why there are so many killings, so much intimidation? “International media have a moral obligation to not be indifferent to what is going on in Mexico,” Hernández said. “Giving the issue space in prominent pages will put pressure on the Mexican government,” she continued
Following elections at the beginning of July, a new president, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, will come into power in December. Hernández is not optimistic that Mexico’s new rulers will be more effective in helping protect journalists than the outgoing party, as the states where the PRI runs the local government include Veracruz, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, which have all seen journalists killed and indifference from local government.
However, she urges media publishers to come together to make a collective demand that the new government be accountable for the attacks and killings of journalists, to make a change from the indifference of the outgoing powers.
“I have hope because I know that there are many journalists who continue to work courageously and professionally, who are ready to fight for freedom of expression in Mexico, and willing to denounce corruption,” she said. “I will fight until my last breath, even if it is a small example, so that as journalists we are not brought to our knees before the drug state.”
Anabel Hernández's acceptance speech is available here