Mexico media face harsh consequences

On Dec. 8, Leo Reyes, a reader from Schertz, said in a letter to the editor that “I and other readers have had it up to here with the news … about drug killings in Mexico…. Just give us the body count on a small section of the paper. The rest is just a waste of space and time.”

Another reader, Nancy Varelas, responded in a Dec. 16 letter: “I strenuously disagree…. Express-News reporters are the only voice some of these victims will ever have.”

One of them, John MacCormack, frequently reports from Mexico, including many Page 1 stories accompanied by the logo “Mexico in Crisis.” His latest piece, “Mexican media muzzled in drug war,” was reported from Ciudad Juárez, which he labeled in a Sept. 21 story “the most dangerous and sinister city in the Western Hemisphere.”

What you will find from reading that lengthy tome is that journalism in Mexico is starkly different from journalism practiced on this side of the Rio Grande. Some key points:

In Mexico, it’s often a deadly enterprise. Ten reporters have been murdered this year, and others have disappeared and are presumed dead. Those who make the wrong choice when faced with “plata o plomo” (silver or lead) are literally risking their lives.

The Mexican press has few friends, and is often threatened by the drug mafias, the army, the police and public officials it  antagonizes.

Some Mexican reporters take payoffs from both public officials and criminals who seek to influence coverage. In some cities, the narco mafias tell the paper what to publish and, more importantly, what not to publish.

The results are vast “black holes” of coverage in Mexico where the press no longer reports on drug cartel activities.

Consequently, as MacCormack wrote, “This creates surreal situations in some locales where violent and spectacular events are exploding in the streets, but according to the local media, never occurred.”

By comparison, journalism in the U.S. is rather freewheeling and risk-free. While scoundrels exist on both sides of the border, U.S. media have an unfettered voice and ample protection.

The Express-News routinely reports most sides of a story. If we make a mistake, we’ll correct it. And if you don’t like our stuff, we might print a letter to the editor like Reyes’. This makes us a unique institution, I think, and helps justify the First Amendment protections we enjoy.

In Mexico, MacCormack reported, “the mafia had a chief of relations with the press” in Matamoros who told the city’s four newspapers what to print. He interviewed an editor who was picked up by an armed group in 2004, threatened and, said the editor, “the word Zeta has not appeared in our paper since then.”

He spoke with Pedro Torres, editor of El Diario in Juárez, who posted a memo in his newsroom prohibiting “use of the terms ‘criminals, criminal groups or capos’ to refer to the violent drug cartels that are destroying the city.”

“These people are quite sensitive,” Torres reasoned…. “(I)f we … refer to them as ‘La Linea or Los Aztecas, they don’t get upset and everyone knows they are criminals anyway.”

Taking payola or knuckling under to an intimidator is not the way journalism is supposed to be. It is disturbing; it is outrageous; it is, some say, the way it has always been in Mexico. Looking at it from this side of the Rio Grande, it’s shameful. Looking at it from the other side, it’s bitter reality.

Any way you look at it, I hope our stories give you a greater appreciation for journalism as we know it. Someone needs to let the world know what is going on in Mexico, and if the Mexicans can’t, we’ll keep trying.

This column was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News on Jan. 1, 2011.

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