Anchor Buddy: Mexico's Endangered Journalists
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, this week's Postcard takes us to Spain, where an American learns some unexpected lessons about immigration abroad.
But first, each week we check in with NPR correspondents and other journalists around the world. Today we're visiting with my anchor buddy in Mexico.
We all know Iraq is a dangerous place for everybody, including working journalists. More have been killed there than in Vietnam. But what you might not know is that after Iraq, Mexico is the second deadliest place for working reporters. According to the Washington Post, more than 30 have been killed there since 2000. Many of those deaths are grizzly and the intimidation is so bad that some reporters are giving up their bylines, their writing styles, and even in some cases stopping the work altogether.
In a moment, we'll talk about the challenges facing journalists elsewhere in Latin America with Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
But first, we're joined in the studio by Ana Maria Salazar, host of Imagen News in Mexico City. Ana Maria, it's nice to see you.
ANA MARIA SALAZAR: Hi, Michel. It's great to be here.
MARTIN: Ana Maria, who is killing these journalists in Mexico and why?
MARIA SALAZAR: Well, most of it - or at least right now most of it revolves around this battle then these fights between organized crime groups. And the Mexican press in the last, I would say the last five to six years, has increasingly become more independent and has been writing more and more about these groups. And that is being reflected in the amount of danger it is to work in Mexico and to talk about - talking right about organized crime.
Also, very little has been said about the amount of aggressions against journalists, and there's a lot of it. In fact, I was doing a report on what was going on in the main plaza in Mexico City, Zocalo. And as you know, there was a very contentious presidential election last year. And we were literally followed by a group of people - there was about 50 of them - who were not happy the way my station have reported the elections. And we were followed - and we were almost - they were almost going to start throwing rocks at us, and we basically could not finish our reporting from the Zocalo. I mean, I'm telling you, after that I'm scared sometimes when I walk out and I'm going to be reporting in certain parts of Mexico City to think that, you know, there could be a group of people who don't agree with the way I think or what I say on the air, and something could happen to me or my team.
MARTIN: Has it always been that way?
MARIA SALAZAR: No. In prior years a lot of the repression came from the government, and it was tough. But in the past, most of aggression was kind of translated into pressures. I mean, they would check your income taxes or they would shut down your station or they would make sure your newspaper didn't get - didn't have papers so you could publish. I mean, there was a lot of pressure and it just would take one call from the Los Pinos, which is the White House, or Mexican White House version. And that was, you know, that's it. You would be off the air or your column wouldn't be published. So now what we see is just this horrendous amount of violence against journalists because of organized crime.
MARTIN: Let's bring Carlos Lauria in. He is Carlos Lauria. He is America's program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He joins us from NPR's bureau in New York. Carlos, thanks for joining us.
CARLOS LAURIA: Thanks, Michel, for inviting me.
MARTIN: Now, talk to me about this. I'm really seeing a lot of this - the violence seems to be driven by narco-traffickers. Do you agree with that?
LAURIA: Yeah, definitely. I mean since the last three years the war between the powerful drug cartels has intensified. Journalists that investigate stories of organized crime, drug traffic and political corruption got caught in the middle. There are an increasing number of journalists that have been murdered, but there has been also journalists that have been attacked, harassed.
And also, to add to what Ana Maria said, we have documented cases of journalists that have disappeared. Since 2005, we have five journalists who have disappeared in Mexico. Three of them were covering crime stories. At the same time, you know, many journalists, especially those who work in northern areas, are indulging in some censorship because they fear physical retribution from these groups.
MARTIN: Is the government taking any steps to stop this cycle of violence? And is the impunity directed solely at journalists or is it just these - crime operates with impunity period? Carlos?
LAURIA: Well, violence is a problem in Mexico that goes, I think goes further beyond the press.
MARIA SALAZAR: Yeah. I agree.
LAURIA: In the last four months of this year, for example, according to official data, there were 100 murders, execution style, related to organized crime.
So I mean this is a problem that is in everything Mexicans to communicate between themselves. It's a freedom of expression problem. And freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Mexican constitution. But it's clear that with this problem of violence many Mexicans are unable to exercise their right to free expression.
MARTIN: Is the government doing anything to investigate crimes against journalists or to stop the violence being directed at journalists?
LAURIA: In early 2006, the government created - after, you know, pressure and proposals from CPJ and other groups - a special prosecutor's office will investigate crimes against the press at the federal level.
This occurred after a vicious attack against the newspaper in the border, in the city of Nuevo Laredo, the daily El MaÃ±ana. Armed men stormed the newspaper in February 2006 and hurled grenades and seriously injured a reporter. And after that, the government created this special prosecutor's office.
Unfortunately, a year has gone by and there has been no breakthrough results, no really resolution of any case of impunity. And at the same time, you know, it's part of the dysfunctionality of Mexico's criminal system. So it's a big problem.
MARTIN: Ana Maria, do you ever think about getting out with the business because of the threats?
MARIA SALAZAR: Well, you know, I came into the business kind of late in my career. And I have a radio news program and I have a TV show on security issues. But I have to tell you, I'm trying - we're about to publish a book on drug consumption in Mexico and narco-(unintelligible), which is retail drug trafficking phenomenon in Mexico. And I also have a four-month-old baby.
And you know, when you watch these kind of things and as I write my columns - my weekly columns, you know, I'm always in the background thinking, you know, who's going to be angry because of this column, and are they going to feel they're going to go after me?
Now, I have to say there is a lot of brave, very, very, very brave, in general, Mexican journalists who are still writing about these things and think it's important to publish it. And I admire them so much because they do risk their lives.
I mean, this is risking your life and your family. And newspapers that publish these stories are risking the lives of their workers and of their families. And I think we need to underline how important it is to support them and to keep on encouraging them to write about these things.
MARTIN: And there's also tremendous violence directed against law enforcement officials. Anybody connected to law enforcement, the judicial system...
MARIA SALAZAR: Runs an enormous risk.
MARIA SALAZAR: So it's a dangerous business these days.
MARTIN: Carlos, I want to talk about Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has not renewed the license for Radio Caracas Television or RCTV. Is this important? Is this an important development?
LAURIA: Well, yes, it is. I mean, this is the oldest private television station in Venezuela, most critical station. And the government has decided not to renew the license, taking an arbitrary and politically motivated decision and casting doubts over their commitment on freedom of expression and democratic values.
MARTIN: Now Chavez, of course, claims that RCTV was encouraging subversive activities. I think his argument is, is that the private press is partisan, that they are lined up against him. So it's only fair for him to use state-run media to get his message out. Do you think that's a fair characterization of the state of - the media in Venezuela?
LAURIA: I mean, that's a fact. The fact that Venezuela media engaged in the opposition without any neutrality or objectivity is a fact.
Now, these accusations by the government of inciting rebellion, inciting violence and of broadcasting pornography, because they have also been - RCTV is also have been accused of pornography, of violating the Venezuelan - several Venezuelan provisions on the Venezuelan constitution, are not based in any sanction, judicial sanction or judicial decision. There's not even an administrative procedure open against the station. They haven't explained what the criteria was used, why - what's the process of review.
So in our view - we have followed this very closely - the government hasn't followed protocol. And this decision is clearly political.
MARTIN: What's the outlook for press freedom in Venezuela? Is there any sign that Chavez is paying any political price for his move against private media? Is there any sign that he's amenable to persuasion on this point?
LAURIA: You have to understand the situation. Now, the government keeps talking about concentration of media ownership in private sector.
But since 2003 the government has invested heavily on state media and the landscape has changed dramatically. The government has opened four stations since 2003. The most ambitious project is called Telesur, which is a network that was created to compete with CNN and Fox according to Venezuelan government. So this is clearly trying to restrict critical coverage, and for us, you know, it's casting it out over their commitment free expression.
MARTIN: Is there anything that Americans can do to be supportive of - if they believe in the freedom expression throughout the hemisphere, is there anything that Americans can do?
MARIA SALAZAR: What needs to happen is everyone needs to speak out very loud. I mean, if you care about freedom of expression, not only in the United States, you need to care about freedom of expression in Latin America and other countries because it's very difficult for democracies to flourish if you don't have a very vocal strong critical media. I think that, in the long run, is probably the best thing that can happen.
MARTIN: Carlos, is there any thought that you have about how Americans can be supportive of - in the support of free expression elsewhere?
LAURIA: Well, I would say not only Americans but also, and especially Latin Americans should be very involved, should be very outspoken, as Ana Maria said, about these problems, because especially in a case like Venezuela, which has a very confrontational relationship with the U.S., it's important for influential Latin American governments, governments that have a dialogue with Venezuela, to engage Chavez in these discussions. You know, I think that this is very important. The international community should be very engaged and, you know, should speak about these issues very clearly.
MARIA SALAZAR: You know, Michel, and if we can't write about these stories because it's dangerous to us, those of us who live in this country, people outside of Mexico and outside of Latin America can write about these stories and make sure they're being published on the Internet, which is - it may be the only way that these stories are going be written, because they may have - these stories may have to be written by journalists that are not living in Mexico or living in Venezuela and make sure they're being published over the Net so people can continue to have access to information.
MARTIN: Interesting. Thank you. Ana Maria Salazar is the host of Imagen News in Mexico City and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington studio.
MARIA SALAZAR: Yeah, it's great to be in Washington again.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming. And Carlos Lauria is the Americas program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He joined us from NPR New York. Carlos, thank you for joining us.
LAURIA: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure.
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