In breakthrough, Mexican media sign crime accord

Major Mexican press organizations agreed today on a code for coverage of organized crime, a step seen as a national breakthrough that could set professional standards well into the future. Though organized crime has been the major story in Mexico for several years, coverage has been haphazard based on time, place, and news organization. The problem with today’s agreement is that organized crime cartels are so powerful in many parts of the country that they will likely be able to block some of the most important elements of the accord with the same intimidation they use to control much of the press already.

Nevertheless, it is important that in Mexico–where crime groups have grown in power and news organizations are among their main targets–that some local and regional news organizations and most national ones have come together to offer a concerted response. In fact, it’s especially interesting that major news organizations are even speaking with each other: Their history is more of professional squabbling and personal and ideological differences. History still ruled in part today as Grupo Reforma, a media company with newspapers in three major cities, did not participate. A top newsmaganzine Proceso and the newspaper La Jornada also declined to join.

Among the agreement’s principal goals: the press must not be used by organized crime to generate terror among the public, and it must not become a propaganda tool for criminals. Addressing a major gap in Mexican newsrooms, it also sets protocols for what to do when a journalist is in danger.

These are extremely difficult goals in parts of the country where organized crime is threatening journalists and news organizations. In these areas, ordinary journalism has been all but suffocated. Running stories demanded by crime cartels, or shaping coverage to what they want, is seen by many journalists as the only way to survive. This is especially so where police or government authorities are thought to be working with the criminals. Many of the news organizations’ leaders publically signing the accord today in Mexico City will go home to a much different and terrifying world.

This dilemma was obscured by the sunlight of the ceremony this morning at Mexico City’s delightful National Anthropological Museum. The signers of the agreement formally pledged not to justify the actions of organized crime groups, and not to cover stories in ways that convey their propaganda.

The agreement also calls for something that news organizations in the most dangerous parts of Mexico almost never do: Cover crime news in their proper context. In these parts of the country if crime is covered at all, only the barest of details are made public: a body found, maybe a name or the make of a car at the scene. There is almost never anything that would let the public understand how the crime is part of a pattern committed by a group involved in other criminal activities and sometimes protected by public officials. 

That is exactly the information organized crime cartels don’t want the public to know. But that is the context the agreement seeks. It is very difficult to believe signing the agreement will bring that context. The results will simply be too deadly. “I can’t cover stories that involve organized crime in their context,” Patricia Mercado, editor of the paper Imagen in Zacatecas, capital of the north-central state of the same name. She signed the agreement this morning, but said the major section about crime and context would be impossibly dangerous for her staff.          

Other parts of the accord could be easier to follow. For instance, the accord urged the press to continue questioning the effectiveness of the government’s anti-crime efforts. CPJ welcomed the agreement’s commitments to consistently cover the issue of violence against the press and to cover attacks against journalists, even those from competing news organizations, as well as to speak out against attacks on the press in on-air commentary and editorial pages.