To Survive or Report: A Daily Decision for Mexico’s Journalists

By Allison Griner

Three of the 28 journalists killed in Mexico since 1992: Luis Emanuel Ruiz Carrillo, Carlos Alberto Guajardo Romero, and Valentín Valdés Espinosa.  (Source: CPJ)

Three of the 28 journalists killed in Mexico since 1992: Luis Emanuel Ruiz Carrillo, Carlos Alberto Guajardo Romero, and Valentín Valdés Espinosa. (Source: CPJ)

Karla Zabludovsky’s mother urged her to pursue a different career path, one that wouldn’t brand her as a target for drug cartels and corrupt officials.

Zabludovsky, 28, is not a politician, a drug enforcement agent or a cop. She is a journalist in Mexico.

A gnawing feeling of unease “happens in pretty much every story, every reporting trip,” the bright-eyed New York Times reporter said in a recent interview. That’s because Mexico ranks among the top five deadliest countries for journalists, according to a 2012 report by the press advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders.

Despite the fears and her mother’s admonitions, Zabludovsky’s passion remains rooted in reporting on her native country, Mexico.

Of course, she has written about the country’s infamous problems with crime and corruption—subjects that predispose journalists to threats. But it is in Mexico that she finds her inspiration, reporting about everything from political gender dynamics to traditional beliefs in witchcraft.

“The Mexican story is fascinating. It has so many angles. It’s really just fertile ground for any kind of story,” Zabludovsky said. “I wouldn’t not be a journalist here.”

That said, the violence in Mexico has still caused Zabludovsky to weigh her willingness to stay and report. So far this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists has tallied two journalists killed in the country. Since 1992, a total of 28 journalists were murdered in direct retaliation for their work, and 40 more were slain under unclear circumstances. Others have simply vanished.

The threat to journalists’ lives—and the lives of their family and friends—has driven several reporters to flee. In June, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that three Mexican journalists have sought exile just in the past year. This is a number high enough to put Mexico in the company of Sudan, Syria and Iran as leading countries for exiled journalists.

Whether to stay or leave often comes down to a matter of life or death, but that doesn’t make the decision to flee any less complicated. Choosing exile can be a luxury only afforded to journalists with enough money, connections and resources. For others, the duty to fight corruption and educate the public compels them to stay and continue their work.

Zabludovsky has already lived abroad in the United States, but she nevertheless struggles with the notion of exile.

“If there was ever a threat towards my family based on my job, I would… I would… I would not…” She hesitated, then pauses for a second. “It’s hard. It’s what I do, and it’s what I love to do. It can come at my expense, but it can never come at my family’s expense.”

Ultimately, Zabludovsky said she would be willing to leave the country. But Zabludovsky admits she’s lucky to have that choice.

She works for a prestigious foreign newspaper and already has a visa to travel to the U.S. Her position affords her a decent living– much higher, she says, than the wages that many of her colleagues earn by working for Mexican papers outside of the capital, in areas most blighted by the drug wars.

One of the most violence-prone areas is the city of Juárez, where Jorge Luis Aguirre, editor of the news website La Polaka, used to live and report.

Over 6,000 people were killed in Juárez between 2007 and 2010, according to statistics from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). It was once dubbed the “murder capital” of the world.

Aguirre remembers that he received his first threats in mid-2008. They increased as the year progressed. And then, on November 13, a colleague from the newspaper El Diario de Juárez, Armando “El Choco” Rodríguez, was shot in his car as he sat beside his daughter.

In an email written in Spanish, Aguirre explained that, on the same day as Rodríguez’s death, his phone rang. He was warned, “You’re next, hijo de tu rechingada madre!”

“If I had stayed, I would’ve been dead by now,” Aguirre wrote. That night, he packed up his family and started the “traumatic” immigration to El Paso, Texas.

“Mexican journalists almost never get refugee status in the U.S., and that’s distressing,” Aguirre explained. Yet, his own refugee case would be a rare exception. Aguirre is widely believed to be the first Mexican journalist to receive political asylum in the U.S.

Luck favored Aguirre in another small way. The language barrier and unfamiliarity of other countries can prematurely terminate an exiled journalist’s career. Aguirre, however, continues to cover events in Juárez – albeit remotely. He admits that continuing his work is “hard,” but with the help of the internet and friends, his news website survives.

El Paso-based immigration lawyer Carlos Spector has represented several journalists who, like Aguirre, fled Mexico due to threats of violence. His clients, he says, are mainly “lower-level journalists” who are unlikely to elicit much attention or support by leaving Mexico.

That makes them all the more appealing victims for cartels. By attacking no-name journalists, gangs can avoid intense public scrutiny while still perpetuating an atmosphere of fear.

His clients, Spector said, often have to flee with no time to consider the nitty-gritty aspects of immigration. One had already been kidnapped and tortured. Another had lost members of his family, murdered in the night. So when considering exile, Spector said, these journalists “only weigh one factor, and that’s their skin.”

But money can quickly become a priority once abroad. The U.S., for instance, precludes asylum-seekers from getting work permits in the months immediately following their applications for protection are filed.

Meanwhile, bills can pile up for the move, plane and bus tickets and resettling family members. While Spector has taken the journalists’ cases pro bono, he estimated that the cost for his work would start at $20,000 USD for each of them.

And despite Mexico’s high-profile violence, Spector said that his clients’ asylum cases are hardly guaranteed wins. Merely being Mexican, he argues, presents a disadvantage. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that the vast majority of Mexican applicants fail to be granted asylum.

Popular or cynical notions about the media can accompany journalists into the immigration courts. According to Spector, journalists face the “assumption of risk” argument: that threats and violence are merely a hazard of the trade. Furthermore, Spector said, a shadow of suspicion lies over persecuted journalists. A targeted journalist simply “must have done something wrong” to have irked the cartels.

Even laws meant to protect journalists can act as an impediment in asylum cases. Government representatives often point to the number of Mexican laws designed to shield journalists from violence, as proof that asylum for journalists is unwarranted.

All the hurdles to exile can ultimately leave journalists feeling “trapped,” according to Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who has studied the emotional conflicts of Mexican journalists.

In his research, Feinstein explains that a “substantial percentage” of Mexican journalists exhibited the same psychological distress that affects war correspondents. Yet, unlike war correspondents, Mexican journalists “can’t just get on a plane and fly away.”

“This is something that they’re living with day in and day out,” Feinstein continued. “I think that is having a significant negative effect on their emotional health.”

Feinstein’s research, funded by UNESCO and published in 2012, revealed that a quarter of the Mexican journalists he surveyed quit reporting on drug-related activities due to intimidation. However, Feinstein is quick to point out that the majority of journalists in his study continued to do their work.

“I’m very clear with my research, which is that the overwhelming majority of journalists are fine, that this is a resilient group. The majority of journalists don’t have PTSD. They don’t have depression. They don’t have substance abuse,” Feinstein said. “But there is a minority in the profession that do. They’ve been ignored and neglected, and the minority is not such a small minority.”

The decision to remain on the job– in spite of emotional trauma– can impact more than just the individual journalist. “People with PTSD out in field take more risks,” Feinstein explained. “Their decision-making processes can be impaired, which then puts them in greater danger but also endangers their colleagues as well.”

The cycle of carnage and journalistic oppression has ultimately left Mexico with an “information vacuum,” said Carlos Lauría. He campaigns for press freedom in the Americas as a program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Many of the issues that affect the daily lives of thousands of Mexicans are going unreported because basically journalists and media are terrorized, and they are unable to perform,” he said. “It’s damaging Mexican democracy.”

Though many journalists stay in Mexico and continue to report, the hostile environment often stymies their work. Shootings that happen in broad daylight go undocumented by journalists for fear of reprisals, Lauría said.

In one case, the newspaper El Diario de Juárez took an extreme step by bartering self-censorship for the safety of its journalists.

It printed a front-page editorial in 2010, headlined “What do you want from us?” The newspaper directly addressed the drug cartels, whom it dubbed the “de facto authorities” of Juárez. With yet another employee to bury, the newspaper wanted to ask the cartels to “explain what it is you want from us, what you intend for us to publish or not to publish,” to prevent future bloodshed.

To break the cycle of impunity and corruption that allows gang violence to thrive, Lauría and his organization have been reaching out to the highest authorities in Mexico. The Committee has met with Vicente Fox and F

elipe Calderón during their terms as president to push for increased federal scrutiny of violence against the media. Since then, the Mexican constitution has been amended to give federal authorities jurisdiction over press crimes. Approval to implement the amendment was only granted this past April.

“The problem of violence in Mexico has gone way beyond oppression. It’s something that’s affecting fundamental human rights of all Mexicans: rights to freedom of expression and access to information,” Lauría said.

From her post in Mexico City, Zabludovsky is already starting to perceive a push in newsroom culture to resist the cartels and persist in reporting local and national news.

“I’ve begun to notice that scandals are popping up more often than they were, related to politicians and corruption and malfeasance,” she said. “That has to do with better laws, better access to information laws, sure. And it has to do with watchdog groups. But it also has to do with reporters and how much pressure we can exert on other reporters to not let go of the story.”

A self-described pessimist, Zabludovsky does not believe that the decision to stay and report will save many lives in the short term. Nevertheless, she said, uncovering corruption is still an “achievement.” One day, she hopes, “given enough time, maybe it will have an effect on the other aspects of what’s happening in Mexico.”

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