Press Freedom: Why Mexican Journalists Risk Violence to Obtain Information

Is it worth risking your life to cover the news? Mexican reporters ask themselves this question all the time, working as they do in the most dangerous place in the world for journalists outside of war zones.

Five reporters have been killed for doing their job in Mexico since the beginning of this year. Why does someone do it?

Why we wrote this

Journalism can easily get you killed in Mexico. Reporters tell The Monitor what drives them to take this risk: social change, a sense of history and a reluctance to write about entertainment.

Juan Alberto Cedillo, covering the explosion of crime and violence in northeastern Mexico, said that “what gives me the conviction to continue, despite the risks, is to write this in the way the most comprehensible and the best documented”. That way, he hopes, maybe in the future people can better understand and solve Mexico’s problems.

Alejandro Castro, a young freelancer, wonders about the change of profession, but believes that “through journalism, we can generate certain changes”, even if he is aware that his work “is only a grain of sand “.

And Nohemi Vilchis, fresh out of journalism school, says she wants people “to see my work and think, ‘I didn’t know that before,’ or ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way. ‘”

“There is a lot to investigate in Mexico,” she adds. “There is a lot to tell the world.”

Mexico City

Is it worth risking your life to cover the news? Mexican reporters ask themselves this question all the time, working as they do in the most dangerous place in the world for journalists outside of war zones.

And with five journalists killed for doing their job so far this year, the question weighs more than ever. For some, it got even more personal.

The threat to Mexican journalists – especially local reporters – comes from organized crime hitmen, local government officials and other, often anonymous, sources. Intimidation scares away some journalists from the profession and forces others to censor themselves, limiting what Mexicans can read and see about their country.

Why we wrote this

Journalism can easily get you killed in Mexico. Reporters tell The Monitor what drives them to take this risk: social change, a sense of history and a reluctance to write about entertainment.

Twenty-nine journalists have been killed here since 2015, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, not counting those killed so far this year. This is not a trend that we expect to see disappear anytime soon.

“It’s not a simple problem that can be solved with a few simple solutions,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s representative in Mexico. Corruption, near-total impunity for killers of journalists and poor police training mean ‘this is a decades-long problem that will take many years to resolve’, he adds .

The Christian Science Monitor spoke with Mexican journalists at different stages of their careers and in different parts of the country about what drives them and their hopes for the future of their profession.

Writing “stories for history”

Juan Alberto Cedillo Guerrero never expected to be one of the few investigative journalists covering the explosion of crime and violence in northeast Mexico. He studied history but dropped out of college and found his niche in journalism covering financial news.

But when the violence started to skyrocket around 15 years ago, he began to wonder what was behind it. This has led him to cover landmark stories like the 2011 three-day massacre of civilians in the small border town of Allende (dealt with in a Netflix drama, “Somos,” last year), and to write five books. on crime and violence.

He was detained and beaten by city police whom he had photographed making an arrest, and he received too many threats on his life to count. Someone, angered by his reports that drug traffickers were teaming up with local gangs, even broke his plumbing.

He had asked the national newspaper that published this story not to publish his byline, but the Mexico City editors ignored his request; perhaps they were unaware of the risks he was running.

“It’s part of the emotional crisis that many Mexican journalists face,” he says. “In my area, you know what it means to investigate and write a story like this.”

“A lot of times after I’ve published a big survey, I kind of disappear,” he says, taking trips out of town or moving from guest bed to guest bed at generous friends. “I can be really scared, but then it passes.” He belongs to a national network designed to protect journalists and human rights defenders, but scoffs at its effectiveness. He says the panic button he received as a member of the program “isn’t much more than a toy”.

Mr. Cedillo considered resigning. And he often resorted to self-censorship. If he and his wife hadn’t parted ways more than a decade ago, he says, he would never have taken the risks his pace demands. The safety of his family would have been at stake.

“What gives me the conviction to continue, despite the risks, is to write this in the most understandable and well-researched way,” says Cedillo. So maybe in the future people will be able to better understand and solve Mexico’s problems.

“I want to write stories for history,” he says.

“A lifestyle”

Alejandro Castro Flores, 27, is not only a journalist; he is an activist who last month helped organize nationwide protests demanding greater protection for journalists and their freedom of expression. Some of his colleagues in Cancún who surrendered carried signs reading “We won’t forget they shot us here”. Two years ago, police opened fire on them as they reported on a protest against violence against women.

Courtesy of Alejandro Castro Flores

Alejandro Castro Flores (left) helped organize nationwide protests calling for press protection and freedom of information in Mexico on January 25, 2022. In Cancun, he stood in front of photos of slain journalists, including three of the five killed for their work this year.

“It gives me hope,” he says. “My generation is planting seeds, but those coming behind us are going to change the whole landscape” with their willingness to speak up.

Mr. Castro is a freelance journalist in Quintana Roo, the site of popular beach destinations such as Cancun and Tulum. Organized crime is gaining ground – and making international headlines – there, and clashes are catching tourists in the crossfire. Journalists have been targeted for their coverage of everything from environmental destruction to local politics.

“I have seen dozens of journalists killed in Mexico over the past four years [since starting his career], but that’s only part of what makes the profession precarious,” says Castro. It’s hard enough to make a living writing for a mix of local, national, and international media on the environment, human rights, and sometimes crime and security. “The uncertainty of the situation is quite traumatic,” he says.

He says he doesn’t know a single young journalist who hasn’t wondered “should I open a bakery instead?” Become a carpenter? Yet he is dedicated to this work. “It’s a job, but it’s also a lifestyle,” he says, admitting that even when he’s not on duty, he often thinks about his job.

Mr. Castro grew up in a rural hamlet; his discovery of journalism on the radio of his university in Mexico City and his debut as a reporter in the capital opened his eyes to social inequalities, he recalls. “Through journalism, ‘you can generate some change,'” he says, hopefully. “I know it’s just a grain of sand and maybe my work won’t change everything, but it’s an integral part of democracy, even imperfect democracies.”

“Unacknowledged Limits”

For a long time, Nohemí Vilchis Treviño’s parents seemed to think that journalism would never be more than a hobby.

Courtesy of Nohemí Vilchis Treviño

Nohemí Vilchis Treviño monitors national and local news as a student journalist for Agencia Informativa UDEM at the University of Monterrey, Mexico in March 2016.

“When I graduated and I wasn’t looking for jobs in public relations or reporting the weather, my mom sat down to ask me about my future,” the recent journalism graduate recalls from the city of Monterrey, in the north of the country. “You should get a desk job. Use Excel. Don’t risk yourself as a journalist,” she says, her mother told her.

Ms. Vilchis understands. She never sought an internship at a local newspaper because she knew “the first assignment would be to cover local politics or security,” she says. It was a disturbing prospect in Monterrey, a city where shootings in the historic center and bodies hanging from bridges were not uncommon.

Very few of his classmates also cover local news. “Almost everyone wanted to cover entertainment,” says Ms. Vilchis. It’s safer.

“There are unspoken limits on where you can go, what you can cover,” she says as a journalist in Mexico. Yet Ms. Vilchis still wants to report on social issues, even if it’s not in the conventional way for daily newspapers or TV news. She recently started working in a publication for academics and policy makers, writing about education and technology.

Sometimes she wonders if she really shares a profession with journalists who spend their time in the field uncovering difficult and dangerous truths. But, she says, at the end of the day, she conducts interviews, thinks critically, synthesizes complicated information and uses professional journalistic skills.

“Even though few people read it, I found my purpose in journalism,” she says. “I want people to see my work and be like, ‘I didn’t know that before’ or ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way,'” she says.

“There’s a lot to investigate in Mexico,” she says. “There is a lot to tell the world.”

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