Concentration of power, corruption, violence and impunity: a noxious mixture to perform the profession of journalism in Latin America. A documentary by Univision.

The Threatened Word

  • Chapter One


In Latin America, threats against journalists have long ceased to be news. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s condemnation of a reporter during a public broadcast is something that does not impact anyone in Argentina, and Rafael Correa’s shredding of a copy of Ecuador’s most important newspaper while shouting “this is what I do to the corrupt press” does not even register in the collective memory. However, it did become news when Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez succeeded in getting a visa to leave the country

The region’s journalists have repeatedly denounced the profession’s sad plight and the heavy pressures they are under, but as Yoani Sánchez points out: “what happens is that instead of our concentrating on what is happening to us, we are trying to narrate what is happening to others.” Within a framework of galloping corruption, violence related to drug trafficking, and day to day injustices, journalism’s silent cry for the preservation of the profession and the task of keeping people informed has been buried.

Univisión decided to draw upon many of these cases in the “PRESSionados” (Pressured) documentary, which gathers the testimony of journalists such as Mauri König, Javier Valdez and many others who have experienced firsthand the harshness of pursuing their profession amidst an array of factors (concentration of power, corruption, violence, impunity) which attempt against the normal and peaceful performance of their duties. La Huella Digital (The Fingerprint) gathers the spirit of the documentary and some additional testimonies concerning the situation of freedom of the press in the region.

Mauri König has received recognition for his confrontations with the established authorities. In the southern region of Paraná, on two occasions, this reporter from the daily Gazeta Do Povo has already confronted a series of death threats from the police.

In the year 2000 König was attacked in the tri-border area for having mentioned how minors had been illegally drafted into Paraguay’s military service. That country’s law enforcement authorities beat him until he was unconscious and he feared for his life. The pain caused by the more than 100 hematomas inflicted upon him were not enough to prevent him from relating stories that are bothersome to the authorities, because, as he states adamantly, his indignation is greater than his fear.

Furthermore, there is no lack of journalists in the region who are confronted by the economic powers. Such is the case in Argentina, where coverage of the large mining operations has become a big headache for many news media professionals.

In the case of Mexico, drug trafficking is one of the main obstacles for the free flow of information. But the thrust of indignation keeps professionals such as Javier Valdez practicing journalism at the very center of operations of the most powerful drug trafficker in the world, Mexican Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias El Chapo.

In 2003, together with other journalists, Valdez founded the newspaper Rio Doce , a news publication that survives in the heart of Sinaloa despite continuous threats from drug traffickers. With striking integrity, while in the daily’s small newsroom, Valdez describes how the former headquarters of Rio Doce had come under grenade attack. “In my case keeping silence would be an act of cowardice, complicity and death. And I am neither an accomplice nor a coward. Nor am I, I don’t consider myself to be, bold, but neither am I dead,” states Valdez.

In 2003, together with other journalists, Valdez founded the newspaper Rio Doce , a news publication that survives in the heart of Sinaloa despite continuous threats from drug traffickers. With striking integrity, while in the daily’s small newsroom, Valdez describes how the former headquarters of Rio Doce had come under grenade attack. “In my case keeping silence would be an act of cowardice, complicity and death. And I am neither an accomplice nor a coward. Nor am I, I don’t consider myself to be, bold, but neither am I dead,” states Valdez.

Worst of all is the fact that most of the assassinations of journalists remain unpunished. Last year, The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), headquartered in New York, published the most recent version of its Impunity Index in which it highlights the countries where journalists are assassinated and those responsible remain at liberty. Among the twelve countries with the greatest impunity index, three were Latin American. Colombia occupied fifth place, Mexico was eighth and Brazil eleventh. And the situation is no less difficult in other countries in the region, as shown by the reports presented at the Annual Meeting of the Inter-American Press Association (SIP-IAPA) held this year in Denver, Colorado, USA.

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The Weight of the Governments

Midway through 2012 the Inter-American Press Association stated that freedom of expression in Latin America is going through a “somber” scenario that extends throughout Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua under “a pattern of common adversities” at the hands of “arbitrary and intolerant presidents.” These are not the only countries where there are serious obstacles to freedom of expression (see graphic representation), but they are the ones that have harassed the press the most in recent years.

The pressures directed against journalists are a technique shared by Cristina Fernández, Nicolás Maduro, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales. The modalities range from public harassment during national broadcasts to the financial strangulation of “bothersome” newspapers.

The Argentine newspaper Perfil denounced the Government for having dropped official announcements from its pages. That country’s Supreme Court ruled that freedom of expression was being violated. Furthermore, confrontations between the government and Grupo Clarín have consequently resulted in “a highly polarized press”, according to the CPJ.

Perhaps the most striking are the personal attacks by presidents against specific journalists, something that would be a cause for scandal in the United States or Europe. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa not only discredited the work of Emilio Palacio in the daily El Universo, but during different press conferences also called him ‘a dwarf’, ‘an enemy of the government’, ‘a bad person’, ‘a sinister person’, ‘a liar’ and ‘a psychopath’.

Today Palacio lives in exile in Miami following a denunciation by the president against him and against the daily where he works because he had been writing an opinion column where he cast doubt upon the veracity of the failed coup d’état by the police against Correa in the year 2010. The Ecuadorean president sought multimillion-dollar sanctions and several years of imprisonment for this reporter. Finally Correa withdrew the lawsuit. Palacio sought and obtained political asylum in the United States for fear of new reprisals.

The epitome of this pattern was Venezuela’s deceased president Hugo Chávez, someone whom his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has not hesitated to emulate. The best known of the former president’s departures from decorum, directed against the press, took place in 2010 when Hugo Chávez became angry while being questioned by the correspondent from Radio France International concerning the results of the legislative elections.

Chávez challenged the journalist in harsh terms, treating her like a liar and an ignoramus. He even accused her of “posing a question phrased in a strange manner” that was “gelatinous” and “devoid of fundamental logic”. “As if you lived on the moon, that is why I asked you where you were from, Andreína,” he blurted out against journalist Andreína Flores. However, this was not the only time Chávez lashed out against journalists.

The main target of his attacks were always the journalists at Globovisión, the only news medium in Venezuela that was not in one way or the other under his control or in favor of his ideas. Journalist Delvalle Canelón has been working for Globovisión for years and she defines her job as being “wartime journalism,” because she says that despite the fact that the risk is not the same, the concept remains so, given the fact that “you have to be careful as to what you are doing…”

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On the Razor’s Edge

“We practice journalism on the razor’s edge. The razor’s edge, if you fall over one way it cuts you, if you fall over the other way it cuts you. You have to know how to skate over it.” The words come from journalist Rafael Fitzmaurice, today the owner of the newspaper and of Channel 5 in Ciudad Juárez.

To practice journalism on Mexico’s border with the United States is to assume a high risk. Such that photographers and reporters tend to go out in a group as a way of minimizing the risk. This is an anomaly brought about by none other that the violence and the threats, given that the normal thing for a journalist is to compete for an exclusive, try to get there first and try to differentiate his or her work from that of other colleagues.

In many parts of Mexico the danger does not come just from the drug traffickers, who try to impose their positions and use the news media for transferring fear to the inhabitants, threats against public officials or the message of power to their rivals. The danger is even greater because the drug traffickers coexist with the political powers. According to Javier Valdez, this is what happens in Sinaloa.

For years, Valdez’s newspaper has been denouncing the ties between the Sinaloa cartel and the state governor, Mario López Valdez. “It is very frustrating to denounce a corrupt politician who has ties to the drug traffickers and nothing happens,” explains Valdez. Such is the case that when the newspaper’s headquarters came under armed attack, the editorial staff had doubts as to who the perpetrators were. “We all thought badly of the governor and likewise of the drug traffickers,” stated Valdez. His bravery in forging ahead, pen in hand, earned him recognition by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists in 2011.

In Colombia, journalist Gonzalo Guillén and political analysts León Valencia and Ariel Ávila were threatened and had to leave the country because of their denunciations concerning the ties of a regional leader (the Governor of the Department of La Guajira, Francisco Kiko Gómez, today under arrest), to criminal organizations.

Unfortunately, not all who bring forth this kind of denunciation remain alive. Many who faced up to the powers that be in Mexico are unable to tell their story. Such is the case of Ciudad Juárez journalist Armando Rodríguez, known as ‘El Choco’. He was assassinated by 10 gunshots as he was leaving his house together with his daughter. Years later the crime continues under the blanket of impunity.

Rodríguez’s widow, Blanca Martínez, recalls that Armando had been receiving threats for two years, but that “he was passionate about his work.” Nevertheless, she states that “he did understand that there were times one had to look after things, because his life might be in danger…in fact, sometimes we would make the comment that a news article is not worth a life, don’t you agree?”

But Mexico is not the only country in the region that suffers from this reality. According to information from the CPJ, this year three journalists have died in Brazil, and one in Colombia. Nor is the profession of journalism going through its best moment in the countries of Central America. Disputes among gangs and against the governments have generated a climate of tension and violence where the practice of journalism has become a titanic task. According to a recent report from Reporters Without Borders, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador there is less freedom of the press than in Mozambique or Kuwait.

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Bowing One’s Head

Going beyond the governmental attacks and the physical aggressions, there is an equally detrimental matter, which is hard for journalists to quantify and approach, and that is self-censorship. Censoring oneself entails yielding to pressures, bowing one’s head, giving up the struggle. For some journalists it is embarrassing to talk about the subject and to admit specific moments when they had to practice self-censorship.

In Venezuela reporter Delvalle Canelón has covered military sources for more than a decade for the Globovisión channel, until recently the only critical news medium in that country. “It’s very hard to do your job under those conditions, but you end up getting used to it,” she said. “Perhaps by adapting yourself to that way of practicing journalism you will discover how to outsmart it.”

The most ironic part is that at times self-censorship occurs at the moment of denouncing the abuses themselves, those committed against journalists. The PRESSionados team followed Canelón during her coverage of the latest presidential elections in Venezuela and witnessed how this journalist confronted a general because he had not granted her a live interview, as he had for the rest of the media, which were state-owned. There was no delay in having the consequences come out of the woodwork.

A few hours later, Delvalle Canelón’s partner –a soldier– was detained for more than 12 hours upon orders from this general, according to the journalist. She assured us during our interview in Venezuela that she did not want to report the case and was afraid to talk about the matter in front of our cameras.

The Venezuelan government has copied the Cuban security scheme, whereby journalists are watched constantly, thus promoting more self-censorship. “They always have you marked. Well, they follow you around wherever you move, wherever you go,” stated Canelón. “Certain people, some officers, there (dressed) as civilians, are assigned to you and your team.”

Under the government’s authoritarian gaze and the noose of official publicity, self-censorship occurs in Latin American newsrooms behind closed doors. Nevertheless, in Argentina, PRESSionados had the opportunity to document how journalist Juan Cruz Sanz censored himself during an interview. The incident happened when Sanz, who used to work at Grupo Clarín, had the chance to interview an official of the Cristina Kirchner administration on his radio program.

The official –politician Gabriel Mariotto, one of the main promoters of the law regulating news media– was not told that Sanz was going to be present at the interview, because otherwise he would be refusing to participate. And, when he finally had him in front of the microphone, Sanz admitted that he had capitulated to self-censorship so that the government would stop stigmatizing him for having worked at Clarín and grant him access in the future.

Sanz, a young journalist, says that in Argentina his generation has experienced the worst attack against the profession since the years of the military dictatorship. “With Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the helm of power, that relationship with journalism will continue to be broken and will remain so.”

But for some journalists, self-censorship is simply a way to survive. That is the case for journalists in some parts of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, whose lives…or worse yet, that of their families…are at stake.

“I believe that, even though I may not be able to relate all of what is happening, I am telling 30%, maybe 20%, of the story...I think I’m doing my job, journalism wherever possible,” stated Javier Valdez, founder of the weekly Río Doce in Sinaloa, Mexico.

In Brazil, journalist Mauri König, winner of several national and international awards for his investigative work on corruption within the police force itself, admits that he has censored himself for fear of reprisals against his family.

His boss, the director of the daily where König was working, was the one who had to advise him to stay away from his investigative work for a while, for his own safety. “He took leave of absence…a vacation of sorts, because it was necessary,” said Sandra Gonçalvez, director of Gazeta Do Povo.

After censoring himself for some time, König decided to return to the streets of Brazil. “I spent some time doing other jobs that were not investigative journalism, but it’s in my blood. My indignation surpasses my fear.”

For much of the news media, self-censorship is also a mechanism for economic survival. That is how Jorge Lanata, a seasoned Argentine journalist, explains it. “There is much self-censorship because journalists are afraid of being attacked by the government’s propaganda apparatus,” he said. “And the remaining options for seriously developing the profession become less and less.” Lanata figures that in Argentina approximately 80% of the state’s public advertisement space is handled with political discretion.

The same thing happens in Ecuador, where the government is able to drive the smaller news media into bankruptcy if it withdraws government public advertisements. “This government has come to believe that the use of official advertisements is a carrot and stick scheme,” said investigative journalist Iván Flores, former editor of Revista Vanguardia. “A carrot for those who are with me, a stick for those who criticize me.”

In fact, self-censorship is a culmination that is hardly encouraging for freedom of the press in many Latin American countries. In the opinion of many experts, this is a freedom without which any democracy will always be an imperfect democracy.

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Text: Mariana Atencio, Tomás Ocaña. Original Design: ARK INK. Videos: Documentales Univision. Video Editing: Laura Prieto. Infographic: Helga Salinas. Illustrations: Johnny Tie. Programming: Edmundo Hidalgo, Helga Salinas. Project Managers: José Fernando López, Junelly Rojas. Product Manager: Alex Behrmann.

© 2013 Univision Communications Inc