Latin American journalists brave deadly threats to report the news
By Dialogo October 28, 2013
Reporting the news has never been an easy job in Latin America, but these days, the journalism profession is more dangerous than ever.
In Brazil, four reporters have been killed this year — three of them in reprisals for their work, said Carlos Lauria, senior Americas program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Organized crime operatives have killed at least 19 journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean from January through August 2013, according to a recent report by the Investigative Commission for attacks against Journalists (CIAP), which is part of the Latin American Journalists Federation (FELAP).
“This has made Brazil one of the most dangerous countries in the region. While reporters are more vulnerable in rural areas where law enforcement is weak, those who work in larger urban centers are not immune either,” Lauria said.
The problem of violence and threats against journalists is not limited to Brazil.
“Criminal organizations have also silenced the press in Central America — perhaps nowhere as much as in Honduras,” Lauria explained. “Rampant gang violence, the presence of powerful drug cartels from Mexico and the deep societal polarization that followed the 2009 ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya all have contributed to make the work of reporters there even more dangerous.”
Journalists recognized for outstanding work
Lauria made his remarks Oct. 23 in New York, following presentation of the 2013 Maria Moore Cabot Prizes, the world’s oldest international annual journalism award.
“It’s very tough to be a journalist in Latin America,” said John Friedman, director of the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes. “We’re trying to use the prize as a way to encourage more solidarity among journalists on the entire continent — both to protect themselves but also to raise the quality of journalism in Latin America.”
This year’s recipients include Mauri König, special reporter for Gazeta do Povo newspaper in Curitiba, Brazil; Alejandro Santos Rubino, director and editor-in-chief of Colombia’s Revista Semana; Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer at The New Yorker, and Donna DeCesare, a documentary photographer and freelance writer who has worked extensively in Central America.
In addition, Cuban journalist Yoani Sánchez — considered one of the hemisphere’s most prominent bloggers — accepted the citation originally awarded to her in 2009, due to Cuban government restrictions preventing her from traveling to the United States at that time.
“I don’t think we could have picked a better group of winners this year,” said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School. “They make us proud, especially as we mark the 75th anniversary [of the Cabot prizes].”
Humanizing the story
DeCesare, who earned the award for her documentation of El Salvador’s criminal gangs, said the fear of violence has “eroded the very fabric of society” throughout Central America.
“When you go as a reporter into the community, no one wants to talk to you because they’re terrified,” she said. “One of the things photojournalism does is connect us emotionally, in ways which humanize the actors in the narratives that we tell. It plays a role in getting people to think about what needs to be done next.”
“It’s important to see them as human beings and not just as criminals,” she said. “I’ve always tried to highlight the work of NGOs and government programs that focus on treating violence as a public health issue, as opposed to just a criminal justice issue.”
Reporters at risk in Brazil
Crime reporters are vulnerable to drug traffickers, particularly in big cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, König wrote in an article published in Americas Quarterly.
“In the border regions, where trafficking in sex and drugs is rife, journalists covering those topics are at risk, while in the Amazon region and central Brazil, the coverage of agrarian conflicts and illegal occupation of public lands can trigger reprisals,” he wrote. Since 1991, 25 journalists have been killed in Brazil, König wrote. “These were journalists who were doing their work, informing society — not journalists on vacation,” he wrote.
Clarinha Glock, author of a study about violence against journalists that was first published by the Inter-American Press Association in 2006, said that while violence was once committed mainly against radio broadcasters and media professionals in the interior, “recently, we have seen these types of crimes in Rio de Janeiro and against the employees of large media companies.”
Mexico, meanwhile, remains the deadliest country for journalists in the Americas, said Lauria.
“In the last six and a half years, more than 50 journalists have been killed or disappeared. Media outlets have been bombed, websites have been hacked, and journalists have been forced to flee. But the most devastating consequence is this climate of fear and intimidation. Reporters work in a climate of terror, and this produces widespread censorship in newsrooms,” he said.
A deadly threat
Many journalists are threatened, beaten, and killed for covering the activities of drug cartels and street gangs which collaborate with transnational criminal organizations. Organized crime groups pose the biggest threat to journalists in the Americas, said journalist Alvao Sierra, author of the book “Coverage of Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Drug traffickers are “methodical, pervasive, and lethal,” Sierra said.
The Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, two major Mexican transnational criminal organizations, are collaborating with local gangs in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Brazil to engage in drug trafficking, gun smuggling, and other illegal enterprises. The presence of these drug cartels has increased the danger reporters face in Central America, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Military officials in many parts of the Americas are trying to help journalists by providing training on how they can do their jobs safely in dangerous areas, said Raul Benitez Manaut, director of the Collective of the Analysis of Security with Democracy (CASEDE).
“It is important for journalists to know what to do or who to avoid when working in hazardous areas where organized crime or guerillas operate,” Benitez Manaut said.
In Peru these past days they have threatened journalist Monica Veco for investigating coruption and drug trafficking where the main political leaders of the APR party are involved, among them Alan Garcia and Jorge del Castillo It's about time someone worried about the safety of journalists. I don't have the exact number of news professionals that have been murdered recently, so far during this century. I am thankful on behalf of humanity for the right to live and the freedom to inform and be informed. Thank you to the forces that work for our safety.