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At PEN, CPJ event, Mexico press crisis examined

The line of people at the stairs leading down to the Great Hall at Cooper Union in lower Manhattan formed early and turned into an audience of 500. They came to hear prominent Mexican and U.S. writers and free expression advocates assess, denounce, and seek solutions to the wave of violence wracking Mexican media.

As the lights dimmed, the Tuesday evening event began with Paul Auster, voice gloomy, reading from an English translation of the desperate editorial on the front page of El Diario. "What do you want from us?" the paper asked of drug traffickers in the piece, published in September, a day after the Ciudad Juárez daily lost another staff member to the power of the gun. "You are the de facto authorities in this city, since our legitimate representatives have been unable to prevent our colleagues from being killed." As with most journalist murders in Mexico, last month's slaying of El Diario's Luis Carlos Santiago is far from being solved.

No surrender, said El Diario's Gallegos. (Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center)

Rocío Gallegos, a journalist with El Diario, joined a panel discussion with Carmen Aristegui (CNN en Español) and José Luis Martínez (Laberinto), and moderated by Julia Preston (The New York Times). Gallegos pointed out that her paper is seeking a truce, not a surrender, and pointed out that the latter would mean giving up her paper's right to report. "We want to know what is happening and why," she said.

Citing examples of impunity that leave drug cartels free to dictate what information can reach Mexicans and the world, the journalists sought to elaborate on their situation and explore solutions. They emphasized that the problem is not contained to Mexico, pointing to the United States as a primary market for drug consumption and key provider of arms used by the drug traffickers.

More than 30 journalists have been murdered or have gone missing since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa came to power. CPJ has confirmed that at least eight of these journalists were killed in reprisal for their work.

A joint delegation to Mexico from CPJ and the Inter American Press Association last month resulted in a pledge by Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa to push for legislation that would make attacks on journalists a federal crime.

Here is what CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon reported to the audience in his opening remarks:

The Mexican federal government has an obligation under its own constitution to ensure freedom of expression; it also has an obligation under international law. But beyond the legal niceties, there is the more practical and prosaic issue that the drug traffickers and criminals are dictating what information is available to the public in Mexico and the global public, represented by all of you here tonight. That's an intolerable situation, one that cannot be allowed to stand.

The event also included readings by, Don DeLillo, Laura Esquivel, Francine Prose, along with poets Víctor Manuel Mendiola and Luis Miguel Aguilar. It was co-sponsored with PEN and PEN Mexico with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which was represented by José Zamora, who has a personal understanding of anti-press violence. Zamora's father, José Rubén Zamora, an investigative journalist with Guatemalan daily El Periódico, was once kidnapped in retaliation for his reporting.

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