Gagging The Press: Latin America’s Endangered Journalists

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the aftermath of this year’s FIFA World Cup extravaganza, The Committee to Protect Journalists implored Brazil to return to dealing with its country’s more concerning issues – such as journalists being murdered regularly with impunity. As the country hangs its head, humiliated by its globally-televised failure, Alicia Simpson reports on what Latin America should really be ashamed of.

Credit: bigstory.ap.org

Credit: bigstory.ap.org

Inside the newsroom of Zócalo, there is a disconcertingly vacant desk. Its revolving desk chair stands undisturbed, its worn keyboard remains unbeaten by fast fingers, its phone rings and rings and rings. There will be no stories of savagery for this experienced desk to support today. Today, its previous occupant is the only story.

Not far from the newsroom, outside a local motel, a bruised and battered body awaits discovery. It belongs to Valentín Valdés Espinosa, a 29 year old Mexican journalist. He has been shot five times, his arms and legs are bound and his body exhibits evidence of torture. A handwritten note, attached to his wounded chest, reads: “This is going to happen to those who don’t understand. The message is for everyone.”

In Saltillo, Northern Mexico, the State concluded that an organised criminal group was behind the murder. Valdés had been part of a team investigating an extensive Mexican army raid at the local Motel Marbella. The paper Zócalo, for which he worked, had boldly reported the arrest of a high level drug cartel member and identified his drug dealings in four northern statesThe dumping of Valdés’ body at the same motel was considered a direct message from the cartel. He was the third journalist to be killed in the Mexican drug war in less than three weeks.

Valdés’ name flooded the headlines, which claimed that his death was part of a drug cartel strategy to silence the press. Yet despite extensive press coverage, the case was never solved. Even Sergio Cisneros, Zócalo’s editor, refused to pursue the death of his reporter, stating “I don’t believe there will be results, so why push?” Slowly but surely, Valdés’ name faded from the front pages.  The case stands as direct evidence of the unrelenting problem of impunity faced by Mexican journalists; murderers and criminal masterminds are rarely brought to justice.

Fear is real and palpable on the streets of Mexico. For journalists here, doing your job means risking your life. The country is a killing ground for members of the press, particularly for local reporters covering crime and corruption. And Valdés is by no means unique. 28 journalists have been murdered in Mexico in direct retaliation for their work and 40 more have been executed under uncertain circumstances since 1992. Others have simply vanished. The forgotten journalists of Latin America have become statistics, useless numbers churned out sporadically, as if this effort alone can cease the violence.

But they were real people, with names and faces and feelings, who danced and laughed and loved like the rest of us. They had husbands and wives, houses filled with treasured belongings and dogs that bounded to the door to welcome them home. And they had families; babies that they once sang to sleep in their arms and sons and daughters that they will never see grow up.

The lifeless body of Gregorio Jimenéz de la Cruz was found in a clandestine grave in February this year.  Jimenéz, affectionately known as Goyo, had been abducted from his home by masked gunmen a week earlier, after dropping his children off at school. The journalist, who freelanced for news agency Notisur in Veracruz, Mexico, had been writing about a recent wave of kidnappings in the area. He had sold the articles, for which he was murdered, for just 20 pesos apiece.

The state of Veracruz maintains that Goyo was murdered as the result of a “passion crime”, a common excuse delivered by government representatives to explain suspicious journalist deaths. The official stance is that it is simply a coincidence that these journalists are slain while investigating controversies such as government corruption and narco-political ties. This puts news providers in even more danger, as it gives criminals the impression that they literally can get away with murder. Justice remains unserved; the parties responsible for Goyo’s assassination are yet to be located or sentenced.

A photo auction, held to benefit Goyo’s family, saw an overwhelming turnout, demonstrating just how strong the sense of journalist solidarity is in Mexico. His widow, Carmela Hernández, has been left alone, abandoned by the Mexican government and the media outlets that her husband loyally served for many years.  The auction raised an incredible 131,000 pesos (nearly £6000). Regardless, no amount of money can ever bring her husband back to Carmela, nor will it give their father back to her daughters.

Journalism is under attack in Latin America and the continuing struggle for a free press has been a particularly brutal one here. The Committee to Protect Journalist’s 2014 Global Impunity Index makes public the countries where journalists are regularly murdered and the killers go free. This year, Mexico ranked 7th, Colombia 8th and Brazil, this year’s FIFA World Cup host, came in at number eleven. 10 out of the 13 countries on the index have featured every year since they began the analysis in 2008.

Credit: globalvoicesonline.org

Credit: globalvoicesonline.org

The challenge of reversing this entrenched impunity, however difficult, is an absolute necessity in the fight for free information, as Camille Soulier, Head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas Desk, explained: “Impunity is a major issue in many Latin American countries, given the congestion in the judicial system and the high level of corruption.”

Fortunately, Reporters Without Borders are now well known in most Latin American countries and, she insisted, are taken seriously by most governments. “What we defend is not always clear to everyone though, and our work can be manipulated,” admitted Soulier. “Press freedom is seen as something quite exclusive, specific to journalists, but the fact is that the right to information is a global human right that everyone should enjoy. This right to information is a guarantee for all other rights.”

The killings are the most extreme example. Attacks, beatings, kidnappings, death threats and imprisonments are much more prevalent and deemed to be equally effective in silencing Latin America’s journalists. The fear generated by these incidents is legitimate and entirely justified; they are by no means empty threats. In at least four out of every 10 journalist murders, victims reported being blackmailed before they were killed and almost a third were either taken captive or tortured before their death.

Recent attacks in Peru demonstrate how commonplace this behaviour has become. Tensions have been rising since April, when there were reports of threats, harassment claims and physical attacks against journalists, all culminating in the bombing of the home of news site director Yofre López Sifuentes. The attack wounded his mother and stepfather.

“We have reached the point where the state considers journalists the enemy and they have left us abandoned,” said López. “The authorities have left us vulnerable as we are victims of judicial harassment and bribes by both state officials and factory owners alike. When they realise these threats do not work on many of us, they try to silence us with bombs.”

With authorities forsaking their country’s journalists, only non-governmental organisations are left to protect and defend those reporting throughout Latin America. Unfortunately, Camille Soulier and other NGO workers have an exhausting task on their hands. Certain state authorities have become a major obstacle for progress in both ensuring journalist safety and protecting press freedom. This has severe and alarming consequences for Latin American citizens. Decisively quashing press freedom breeds secrecy; secretive states breed chaos and disorder.

Carlos Lauria, the Senior Americas Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, has been fighting for many years to protect journalists’ freedom. For Lauria, the worst consequence of this wave of violence is that it creates a climate of fear and intimidation, which then results in even more censorship.

“Cases that affect the daily lives of people in society, such as drug trafficking in Mexico, go unreported as journalists are now too afraid to write the story,” he said. Shaking his head, he confessed that there is a much bigger underlying issue. “The situation is not only affecting journalists, but affecting the ability of society to exercise their basic human rights,” said Lauria. “Individuals have a right to information. What’s truly at stake here is democracy; this great freedom of information crisis is leading to democratic instability.”

Only when it is unchained can the media perform essential checks and balances on the government in power and, in doing so, nurture democracy. A lack of reporting on corruption only stands to foster more drug cartels, more human trafficking, more crime, exploitation and unnecessary death. Though gagging the press may arguably shelter journalists in the short-term, the future depicts only broken families and orphaned children on its horizon.

If journalists are not at liberty to monitor, investigate and criticize policies and actions, good governance cannot prevail. Vanessa Garnica, Press Freedom Adviser from the International Press Institute, spoke of the harrowing effect that attacks on their colleagues can have on other reporters. “When journalists are attacked or forced into exile, other journalists covering the same issues or working in the same country may enforce self-censorship on themselves, as they are afraid of suffering the same consequences as those who have been forced to flee.”

In Mexico, editors are so fearful of retaliation from drug cartels, as well as their own government, that many now refuse to report on organised crime at all. Journalists across the continent are hostages in their own towns. They cannot go out walking or to the supermarket, and old friends refuse to visit. They are made to live in fear of one day being ‘disappeared’, like so many before them, who went to work one day and never came home.

In spite of this, correspondents in Latin America continue to risk their lives. Camille Soulier spoke of the emotional toll that reporting in such conditions has, but which is rarely talked about. “Journalists who investigate on delicate matters live in constant fear, not just for their lives but also for their loved ones,” she said.

She mentioned Anna Hernandez, one of Reporters Without Borders’ 100 Information Heroes. In a thank you letter to Soulier, Hernandez stated that continuing her work was incredibly difficult, but when she thought about all her colleagues who have sacrificed their lives for the truth, she thought that quitting would be even worse than dying.

“RWB provides bullet proof vests, helmets and first aid for journalists reporting in conflicts,” said Soulier, “but we also try to be there for them, to provide moral support and help them through trying times, even if it means facilitating their exile.”

Carlos Lauria knows first-hand how devastating ostracising themselves can be, having supported many journalists in doing so. “Being forced into exile puts journalists’ lives in complete disorder,” said Lauria. “Often they have to flee to countries where they don’t speak a word of the language, which makes finding another job impossible. Their families, who depend on them, are ruptured and they are isolated from their friends.

“Usually, they cannot ever work as a journalist again,” he added.

Throughout this summer’s FIFA World Cup, Brazil’s media restrictions were on vivid display. Brazil is the 11th deadliest country in the world in which to practice journalism, ranking one spot worse than war-torn Afghanistan, and violence was an added threat for journalists and soccer fans alike that travelled there this summer.

Carlos Lauria helped conduct a recent report on the dangers of practicing journalism in Brazil. “There were dozens and dozens of violations before the World Cup had even begun,” he said. “There were more than 100 in this period, including arbitrary detentions, beatings, harassments and, in February, a journalist was killed during one of the protests.”

On the day of the first match, just streets away from the São Paulo stadium, police clashed with protesters with only hours to go before the opening ceremony. Amid a haze of tear gas and rubber bullets, three journalists and eight demonstrators were left injured.

One of these was Mídia Ninja journalist, Karinny de Magalhães, who was arrested during a demonstration. For several hours, she was subjected to verbal, physical and sexual aggression, her detainers only finally backing down when she lost consciousness.

For Camille Soulier, the global coverage was important in order to unmask the country’s controversies. “The World Cup was a test for Brazil,” she said. “People were incredibly critical from the get go, and we really hoped that the exposure would bring the country’s press freedom issues into the spotlight.”

According to the Brazilian NGO ABRAJI (the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism), from the 12 June to the 13 July, a total of 38 Brazilian and foreign journalists were attacked and detained by police and demonstrators. The highest daily figure was registered on the day of the final in Rio de Janeiro. As Mario Götze netted the winning goal with just eight minutes of extra time remaining, as German supporters erupted, elated, into oblivious applause, 15 journalists were booted to the ground and beaten, as the anti-Cup protests occupied the streets outside the Maracana Stadium.

“Unfortunately the World Cup was only a very small window into the greater problems of Brazil,” said Soulier, “and the issue of violence against journalists was given very little coverage, so nothing has changed.”

Journalists lost more during the 2014 FIFA World Cup than the Brazilian team ever did. While this year’s Cup was estimated to be the most expensive in history, costing the Brazilian government an estimated $14 billion, journalists covering the extensive protests against the indulgent extravaganza paid a much greater price. Now that everyone has returned home, the scandal, damage and abuse that resulted from the event leaves us with only one question: was it worth it?

“All the same issues still exist,” admitted Soulier. “The World Cup didn’t make any difference. Now we have to look towards the presidential elections in October and see if protection for news providers will finally become a real priority for candidates.”

In spite of the murders, kidnappings, torture and attacks, despite the risks of having to abandon their families and friends, there are journalists in newsrooms all over the world who put their lives in danger on a daily basis to give the public the information it deserves.

For the sake of sustaining democracy and in defence of freedom of expression, they spin in their revolving desk chairs, bash their worn out keyboards with fast fingers and answer the ceaselessly ringing telephone. They remain courageous, fearless in the face of danger and perpetually bold in their fight for veracity.

The state must act to protect its correspondents and authorities must strive to bring their murderers to justice. It must join forces with committed NGOs, who fight tirelessly so that reporters can lock the office door at the end of a long day and return home to their beloved families.

The disclosure of corruption, secrecy and deceit is a basic human right and must be supplied as such; trading journalists’ lives is an inexcusable and intolerable exchange for the truth.

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