Journalists: witnesses and victims

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A grainy video flickers on the white screen in front of you; you can tell it was taken at night, the faces have a greenish cast to them as if you’re looking at them through night vision goggles. It’s somewhere in the desert and it’s cold. The young man wearing a baseball cap shivers and rubs his arms as he chats with the others. They are all waiting for someone to arrive. The young man is smiling, a quick laugh escapes, then fast banter – he’s nervous. Suddenly, you’re nervous too. You feel it first deep in your gut and then it flutters up to your chest, your throat. Something terrible is about to happen. I can hardly keep watching now that I know; I want these guys to stop talking, stop huddling against the cold wind, stop waiting for the approaching horror. Please hurry up, fast forward through the dread. Finally a pick-up truck arrives and turns off its headlights. The man in the baseball cap tentatively move towards it, the camera stays behind. And then it all moves so fast – someone steps out of the truck, the guy waves to him, someone else yells and the guy’s hands go up in the air. Shots ring out.

 

I watched this scene play out at Teatro El Milagro in Mexico City last month, during a gripping performance of Iluminaciones VII by award-winning playwright Hugo Alfredo Hinojosa, directed by the innovative Alonso Barrera. The play does not follow a chronological sequence of events, but rather fragments of experiences surrounding the murder of a journalist by drug traffickers (the young man in the baseball cap). There is only one way I can describe what it’s like to watch Iluminaciones VII: imagine yourself in a waking nightmare. The characters are stylized, sometimes moving in slow motion; the scenes are surreal; the images are disconcerting; and the one constant is a suffocating sense of dread. At the end of the play, the dead journalist comes upon his murderer in purgatory; the hit man seems numb to the violence that extinguished both of their lives and concludes that after all, they both died on the job.

Of course, journalism shouldn’t be as hazardous a career path as assassin for a drug cartel, but sadly, a look at Mexico today would suggest otherwise. “Mexico continues to be the western hemisphere’s deadliest country for media personnel. More than 100 journalists have been murdered or have disappeared in the past decade…In the immense majority of cases, journalists are killed by drug cartels for covering their activities. The police and judicial investigations into these murders are often closed quickly or are paralyzed by cumbersome bureaucratic procedures. The result is almost total impunity.”

This is an excerpt from a Reporters without Borders document of recommendations submitted to the UN Human Rights Council today, coming on the heels of the murder of a journalist in Chihuahua yesterday and last week’s armed attacks on the offices of the El Siglo de Torreón newspaper. Jaime Guadalupe Domínguez, the director of a news website called Ojinaga Noticias, was shot 18 times yesterday in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, the first journalist to be killed during President Peña Nieto’s term. Domínguez’s colleagues posted the details of the reporter’s death – including the fact that the murderers stole his camera after killing him – and said it would be their last story. The website has since been taken down.

During the week of its 91st anniversary, the El Siglo de Torreón newspaper offices experienced three armed attacks by assailants using AK-47s and other assault weapons, leaving one police officer injured and a bystander dead. “[We] celebrate our 91 years in the midst of one of the worst waves of violence ever unleashed against us in our long life. In the last three days, the offices of this publication have suffered attacks against the federal police who provide security for this building. It hasn’t even been a month since five of our colleagues were kidnapped in an effort to intimidate us…Intimidation of the press is an attack on the entire community we serve and inform.”

The cartels have become intimidation experts who in some states, like Zacatecas, “haven’t had to kill a single journalist to silence every journalist”, according to an in-depth February report by Mike O’Connor from the Committee to Protect Journalists. “According to CPJ research, this is the pattern now in many Mexican states: Cartels gain control, the press is intimidated, and the public is uninformed. And since there are no deaths among local journalists, there is no attention drawn to the pervasive problem of self-censorship.” O’Connor goes on to relate the stories of anguished and frustrated journalists who have stopped reporting on the takeover of their state by the Zetas. In the words of one female reporter: “We have failed the people here who counted on us to tell them what was happening all around us. We had the responsibility to tell them, but we could not. So we failed them.”

O’Connor poses an important question in his analysis of the unspoken troubles of Zacatecas: “how many other, seemingly quiet states are really just like Zacatecas?”

 

Sources:

Proceso, Asesinan a reportero en Chihuahua; primer periodista abatido en el sexenio (Mar 4)

Puente Libre, Probablemente éste sea nuestra última nota: Ojinaga Noticias (Mar 4)

Reporters without Borders, Organized crime, local authorities threaten reporters and netizens (Mar 4)

Animal Político, Atacar a los medios es acatar a la comunidad (Feb 28)

Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press: Mexican self-censorship takes root (Feb)

La Fábrica: Centro de cultura, arte y creación (venue/producers of Iluminaciones VII)