Self Censorship is Not Preventative Action: Mexican Journalists Respond (Part 2 of 2)

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“Narco-traffickers, the professional killers, executors (or sicarios) and their bosses like to be considered heroes, like those they see in their favorite action movie… They want their messages across the news to say one thing: they are the most powerful, the strongest and merciless.”

In the second part of our series on “narco-censorship” in Mexico, we feature a response by Leonarda Reyes, founder and director of the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics. Leonarda explains that narco blogging is not new and that these platforms face the same independence issues as the mainstream media. In her country, where journalists can still remember official censorship policies, Leonarda admits that “self-censorship seems just as natural and a safe play.”

Self Censorship and Drug Violence
By Leonarda Reyes

If you read the international news on a regular basis you must have come across the headlines about beheadings, shootings and massacres involving the drug cartels in Mexico. If you follow Mexican news from afar, it seems that the country is on fire; dangerous at every corner.
Some of the latest news includes a public protest by journalists and buzz about a blog where drug killers (or sicarios) upload videos of their shootings and boast about their activities every day. The protest of journalists, a march on main streets of Mexico City and other cities in the country in early August 2010, was the second of its kind.

News about reporters who have been killed or disappeared is not new. In fact, the violence against journalists started to escalate in 2004. What is new and triggered the latest journalist protest is that recently four journalists were abducted from mainstream media organizations, namely Televisa -the biggest media conglomerate in the Spanish-speaking world- and Milenio Multimedia group. The journalists were kidnapped just minutes after covering a protest by inmates in a prison in the central state of Durango in early July.

To free the journalists, the criminals did not demand money, but to air and publish their messages which accused some officials of corruption. The media organizations refused to comply with the criminals request and the federal police rescued two of the victims, while the other two were released by the kidnappers.

“The narco demands headlines”, was the headline of El País newspaper in Spain. That was exactly what the drug cartels wanted and have wanted for at least for the past ten years. When and why did the drug cartels begin to consider the news and media attention important for their operations? Being a long time observer and reporter of the narco traffic in Mexico, I have some ideas.

Media intimidation in Tamaulipas

It all started in the late nineties, when elite soldiers were recruited by the Gulf cartel for the first time. Some of the soldiers recruited had had elite training by their American counterparts on irregular war and psychological operations. The elite soldier-criminals started using their training for the sake of the cartel and soon in Mexico we started seeing well planned sophisticated activities such as rescue operations to free drug lords in prison. On the news front, the Gulf cartel started controlling the content of news shows and newsprint as they did not want their domain “heated.” Too much attention from the president and the federal police would increase police activity and interfere with their businesses.

It is no wonder why Tamaulipas, the home of the Gulf cartel located in the northern east border of the country, was where the media was silenced first. The news media there are fully controlled by the drug lords who decide what and when to publish and air stories. The arrangement took some time to develop and several journalists were killed to make clear who was ruling the state. Just last week, a car bomb exploded outside Televisa’s Tamaulipas’ office to show who is boss.

Nowadays in Tamaulipas there are no killings or abductions of journalists. There is also no news made public about the violence happening if not approved first by the cartel. For instance, just a couple of days ago, on August 24, seventy two bodies were found of illegal central American citizens, who obviously were in their way to the United States and fell victims of the organized crime. True to form, the news about the 72 bodies did not appear on the Tamaulipas media, but was published widely in the national news and other regional outlets. This reinforces the idea that cartels care about local news, not national news.

Citizens in Tamaulipas are now using the social networks and cellular phones to get information about shootings and about traffic blocks. Road blocks are a new tactic of the cartels, adopted to avoid being chased by the military or the federal police. But no media or social network could completely fulfill citizens’ need for information

Narco-traffickers, the professional killers, executors or sicarios and their bosses like to be considered heroes, like those they see in their favorite action movie. They love corridos (songs composed about their lives and accomplishments) and they like boasting about their success. In contrast, they hate when news against them is published, let alone stories that make fun of them or betray them. They want their messages across on the news to say one thing: they are the most powerful, the strongest and merciless.

Journalists need greater preventative protection than self-censorship

When we founded the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET) in 2003, we had the aim to train investigative journalists. With the killings of journalists starting in early 2004, the organization’s mission was diverted. Instead, we ended up just issuing alerts on attacks against journalists and the media.

Reporters, even experienced ones, have failed to understand that continuing to practice journalism exactly the way they were before has become extremely dangerous. Reporters seem naïve or to lack malice when the cartels come to town. Yet, just covering the crime beat is not safe anymore.

There are now seven cartels –they split and rearrange often- and in early 2000, the groups started an expansion strategy that started the bloodiest drug war seen in Mexico.

As for the drug cartels, they have their own interpretation about the news: news in their favor keeps that newspaper and channel in their good graces. News agencies become enemies if news against the cartels is aired or published. In this regard, the drug cartels have gotten it all wrong, they don’t know or respect journalistic principles. The cartels also get it wrong when they go after a reporter that appears on the TV screen or the one who signed the piece on the newsprint. Reporters in the newsrooms in Mexico have very little power– it is the editors and the owners of the news organizations who in fact choose what news to publish. But as we say in Mexico, “the thread breaks at the thinnest point.” Only when the cartels see a pattern do the attack the most visible targets: newsrooms and buildings of the news organizations.

The media owners, on the other hand, don´t seem to have taken any responsibility or undertaken any preventive action. There have been no preventive policies on what to publish and how to do this. The owners only get the heat when their reporters or newsrooms are attacked. Media owners have not assumed responsibility for a strategy to protect journalists and sadly, some of the media organizations ignore the news about attacks until their agency is attacked.

News organizations also have failed to understand the drug lords’ interpretation of the news. An editor from a prominent newspaper in Ciudad Juárez mentioned to us –the envoy from Reporters without Borders and myself, as director of CEPET- that the newspaper had gotten phone calls from a cartel they could not even identify. The voice and the message was meant to cheer them up: “good, that´s good what you published today, keep it up.” Such a call comes as a shock: if this particular cartel thinks you support it then the opponent cartel is surely thinking you are the enemy. A bomb or a hand grenade might be on its way. Luckily (if it´s any luck!) the groups are very busy attacking each other.

The choice to censor the news

The cartels tip the newsrooms off about mantas, big signs posting threats, or about a body dumped. The particular media organizations gets the scoop but also the danger that comes with it. To avoid the danger, some news organizations have adopted self censorship and by trial and error, they’ve found out what not to publish. For instance, a newspaper in Ciudad Juárez only publishes official information with a source. Another newspaper avoids to publish names and identify what cartel did what or avoid to blame an attack to any cartel. In extreme cases, like in Tamaulipas, it is better not to publish anything regarding drug violence.

The decision to self-censor is a hard one for news organizations who have seen how the ratings go up and many more copies are sold when the drug massacres are the most prominent news. But to continue publishing such news means to endanger the lives of the reporters, the cameramen and the whole business.

Very few owners of small media organizations have been attacked or kidnapped. Some of the most prominent have abandoned the country and run the news business from across the northern border. As for the reporters and cameramen, being the visible face of the news, they are the weakest and most vulnerable link.

That is how self-censorship works for local news. The so-called national newspapers, who don´t get any massive distribution in the countryside, and the national TV shows are safe because the news seems far away to the drug lords. It is the local correspondent for Televisa or Milenio, or any other who becomes accountable to the cartel. The local news and local edition staff are the targets. In Mexico City, the drug violence has not being seen at the heightened state of more remote locations.

Journalists have organized protests in the past condemning the cartels attacks and demanding effective investigation of the killings and disappearances of journalists. From past experience I think street protests are good to release pressure, but do not accomplish much. In October 2004, a national protest was carried out by CEPET in ten states and sixteen cities across the country. Some follow up was arranged with the authorities but no real changes or preventive measures happened. At the time, a letter was delivered to governors, to local and federal legislators and to the Presidency. Some of these leaders pledged to investigate the cases, but that was it. The second national journalist protest in early August of this year, did not plan for follow up or request demands.

In a country with a long history of official censorship during the era of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, who ruled the country for seventy years, self-censorship seems just as natural and a safe play.

Narcoblogs: both intentional and unintentional

Blogs also help the narco killers to boast about their activities on blogs. The use of blogs by the narco are not new: the criminals are generally young people who are at least Internet literate.

The first blog known to be used as means to communicate among themselves was escolar.net. Based in Spain, authored by journalist Ignacio Escolar, it was never meant to be a blog for narcos but it attracted the criminals attention after the piece “Zetas, the elite soldiers from the Golf Cartel” was published and under it many comments were written– close to two thousand in one year between 2005 and 2006.

Threats, insults and information about attacks were exchanged, and even sicarios looking for jobs offered their services in posts. Then, in September 2006, a state chief police was killed. His murder was predicted on Escolar’s blog, making the author decide to close the comments feature. Today, the website and the narco messages are still open for reading.

Youtube is a frequent platform for the cartels to air executions, training and operations, exchange insults and to show off. The collection of videos about executions is enormous and clicks reach the millions.

The new blogdelnarco.com has attracted attention recently and amazed many visitors by its content which, in fact, started with photos, videos and text already published in other blogs and news websites, and for which the author did not give credit to the original sources. What is new is the live chat feature and the fact that criminals have started sending their own videos and photos –very explicit ones- and boasting about their shootings, killings and successful operations. The site also has set up a Twitter feed with messages mostly about shootings.

Despite its high activity and traffic, it would be misleading to say that blogdelnarco fills a viod of information about the drug violence. Just by Googling Mexico narco traffic news, thousands of pieces appear online. What weblogs like blogdelnarco.com are providing is a platform for criminals to share information among themselves.

President Felipe Calderon and his government have been saying that the drug cartels are being defeated by the military and the police forces. Some progress is evident, like the arrest of prominent drug lords. However, with news about shootings, killings, beheadings and massacres, as well as traffic blocks, on many front pages and TV shows –except locally in some cases- the public does not feel confident in the President’s assertion. Criticism against the federal government for its drug fight operations is on news and shows everyday. At least we cannot claim government censorship.

— Leonarda Reyes
— Image: Nathan Gibbs (cc by/nc/sa)

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