Scared silent in Mexico

The Maria Moors Cabot Prize is one of the greatest honors conferred on journalists covering Latin America. The black tie gala, which took place last Thursday at Columbia University’s majestic Low Library, is like an annual reunion for journalists like me who have worked in the region.

It was great to some old friends, like Dudley Althaus from the Houston Chronicle, Julia Preston from The New York Times, and Sam Quinones from the Los Angeles Times, who was one of this year’s honorees.

With so much expertise gathered in one place, Columbia Journalism School professor Josh Friedman had the terrific idea of convening a conference on one of the most pressing issues confronting journalists in the hemisphere: the unremitting violence against the Mexican press.

Josh, who is a long-time member of CPJ’s board of directors, participated in the CPJ board meeting in June that took place in Mexico City. While there, we met with journalists, editors, and representatives from the government, including President Felipe Calderón. Josh and fellow CPJ board member Victor Navasky were so shocked by the level of violence that they were determined to invite a wide range of experts to Columbia to discuss possible solutions. The Knight Foundation stepped up to foot the bill.

Entitled “Scared Silent,” the conference brought together journalists, academics, and politicians for a wide ranging discussion. My colleague Carlos Lauría, who runs CPJ’s Americas program, kicked off the discussion by presenting some sobering statistics: 23 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, seven of them in direct reprisal for their reporting. Seven more journalists have disappeared since 2005–a figure unprecedented in CPJ’s history.

The first panel, which I moderated, discussed some of the consequences of this unchecked violence. Journalists are pulling back, particularly on coverage of drug trafficking and corruption, and important stories are not being told. Tijuana freelance journalist Mariana Martínez Estens showed a short but chilling documentary on how Tijuana’s once vibrant society has been wracked by fear. I’ve participated in many such discussions over the years and have been struck at times by the growing sense of powerless and despair. But when I asked the panelists if they remained hopeful, most said they did.

That’s important, particularly in the context of the last panel, in which we discussed solutions. For years, CPJ and other press freedom groups, such as the Inter-American Press Association, have been pushing for Mexico’s federal government to take over investigations into journalists killings that have stalled at the state level. This is referred to as “federalization” and would require new legislation. Back in June, CPJ secured a pledge from Calderón that he would submit such legislation to Congress by this fall. Congress is on board in principle and is looking at several different approaches.

After the panel discussion, we met informally with Mexican Congressman Gerardo Priego Tapia and asked him to brief us on where the legislation stands. Over cold beers at an outdoor restaurant on Broadway, he told us that Congress was considering several proposals and hopes to move one to committee in the next 10 days. CPJ and other press groups are hopeful that the legislations will broadly protect freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution.

That night at the Cabot Award dinner, I chatted with Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, who has championed the issue of press freedom and greater protection for journalists within the federal government. I told him that I hoped that Calderón would work closely with the Congress to make sure that federalization moves ahead.

The Cabot dinner was a lovely celebration, filled with lively speeches including an appeal from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger for Mexico’s federal government to come together on federalization of crimes against freedom of expression. Despite the newsrooms cutbacks and turmoil in the media industry, there is still some extraordinary journalism taking place in Latin America, and much to celebrate.

But too many Mexican journalists are dying. What they need is not an award, but concerted government action to make sure that the authorities have the legal tools to bring the killers to justice. Federal legislation won’t solve the problem–but it will send a clear signal about the dire situation and need for urgent action.