‘I need a gun, but not to defend myself – it’s so they don’t take me alive’
May 30, 2012 1 Comment
By Rodney Pinder
Last week’s 10th Austin Forum for Journalism in the Americas reveals the plight of many local journalists working in Latin America.
The outburst from a Mexican journalist came a few days after the bodies of three photojournalists were found in a canal in the city of Boca del Río, in Veracruz state. Gabriel Huge Córdova, Guillermo Luna Varela and Esteban Rodríguez, a former Veracruz news photographer, and Irasema Becerra, said to have been Luna’s companion, had been brutally tortured, their limbs hacked off and skin stripped away.
Daniela Pastrani, director of the Mexican journalists’ association Periodistas de a Pie stunned a conference on journalist safety in Latin America held in Austin, Texas, when she reported asking a colleague what she should bring him back from the United States. That was his reply.
At least 30 journalists have been cruelly murdered or “disappeared” in Mexico since 2006 and dozens have been attacked, kidnapped or forced into exile from a country drowning in a maelstrom of ruthless criminality involving drug cartels and corrupt politicians and security forces.
“We are living in terror,” said former Veracruz photojournalist Miguel Angel Lopez Solana, who is seeking asylum in the United States for himself and his wife. His father and brother, both also journalists, and his mother were killed by unidentified gunmen last year.
The “bring me a gun” plea highlighted the plight of hundreds of journalists in Latin America, from Mexico to Brazil, Guatemala to Colombia, Honduras to Haiti, as they try to do their jobs in one of the world’s most hostile environments – kidnapped, killed and threatened by crime lords and corrupt state authorities.
The Austin Forum, organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas, heard shocking stories from journalists from all over the region, raising their voices in a cry for help that is barely heard elsewhere in the world and usually ignored by uncaring governments at home.
Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, Chile, Peru, Guatemala all regularly appear on casualty lists for the world’s most murderous countries for journalists. Rarely are any killers brought to justice. Tellingly, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil rank 5th, 8th and 11th in the world impunity index compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Mexico was the bloodiest country in the world last year in the International News Safety Institute’s casualties list, closely followed by Honduras, Brazil and Chile. This year, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras are vying for top “honours”.
The conference heard that 29 journalists have been murdered in Honduras since 2003. State institutions were accused of being behind most assaults on freedom of expression, with the police branded as “one of the most rotten” of them. “We live in a world of murder,” said Hector Becerra, director of C-Libre.
Killers of journalists enjoy complete impunity in Haiti. Not one murder in 20 years has been completely explained. Anti-terror laws are being used to stifle free expression in Ecuador – where there have been no known incidents of terrorism. More than 200 attacks on journalists have been recorded in Venezuela, but society appears indifferent.
In Colombia, the number of journalists killed has declined, but threats and intimidation have increased, the conference was told.
“There are fewer deaths because we are censoring ourselves,” said one speaker.
What can be done?
More than one participant found it difficult to suppress a sigh of hopelessness as the devastating picture emerged of lost freedom of expression and blighted human rights.
Some hope may be placed in recent UN actions to ensure the safety of journalists and end to impunity, but these will depend for their success largely on the very governments accused of neglecting their responsibility to provide basic security for all of their citizens. In Latin America, it is said some governments have been infiltrated by the cartels, so the citizens – including journalists – really have nowhere to turn.
Others said journalists must be better prepared and trained to look after their own safety. INSI has now provided free safety training to more than 2,000 journalists worldwide, and is preparing a new safety course for Brazil. But thousands more journalists are at risk.
Others said there was strength in solidarity and those in the news business must come together to form a united front against intimidation, harassment and murder.
Publicity is a natural weapon for journalists in danger, but one speaker pointed out the world’s press paid little attention to the plight of news men and women in Latin America – “Why this silence as journalists are under attack? The killing of one affects us all.”
Amid the physical dangers, the mental trauma suffered by journalists living daily in danger is taking a hidden toll. How to report truth in a climate of terror?
“Stress hits the mind like a bullet hits the body,” said Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
INSI has collaborated with Professor Anthony Feinstein of the University of Toronto in a ground-breaking investigation of the emotional health of journalists in Mexico. His study, which will be published soon, promises some shocking revelations.
Rodney Pinder is the Director of the International News Safety Institute.