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Violence as an Exception

 | By Anthony King, GPS News

Translated by Marcela Alvarez, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies

A few days ago I was invited to participate in a conference on the state of the press in Mexico and the challenges facing those who collaborate on media in Mexico or cover topics related to it.

The event was organized by the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. The two-day conference talked about the history of the press in Mexico and about censorship and freedom of expression; a journey was made through the relationship between the media and power, and the bi-nationalism of both the panelists and the audience was notable: academics and journalists from Boston to Culiacan presented and participated in an illuminating debate.

Eileen Truax

When my turn approached, I had the privilege of sharing a table with people I admire and respect: Rafael “El Fisgon” Barajas; Vicente Calderon, from Tijuana Press; Sam Quinones, former LA Times correspondent in Mexico, and the sensational Javier Valdez Cardenas, founder of the weekly journal Riodoce de Sinaloa and recipient of the PEN Club Award.

Sitting next to me was Javier Garza, who was director of the newspaper El Siglo de Torreon during the presidency of Felipe Calderon. El Siglo was among the few media outlets that continued with accurate coverage during the years in which violence and extortion surrounded the La Laguna region and silenced the press. Working under threat and attack was the norm for its journalists in these years, leading Garza to design a security protocol that is followed today by various newsrooms in the country to protect its journalists.

Froylan Enciso, a visiting fellow at the Center and coordinator of this panel, asked us to talk about challenges, the material conditions for journalists, information transparency and strategies for binational coverage. Manuel Buendia and Miguel Angel Granados Chapa were invoked, and we talked, of course, about violence; which silences articles and instills fear among those who take part in this profession.

Valdez Cardenas made a clear statement: when you live in a state of drug violence, neither publishers nor journalists nor readers are able to set the agenda of the press; it is determined by criminal groups. He talked about the instinct that a reporter working under these circumstances must develop, with experience, to go as far as he or she can without unnecessarily risking his or her life.

“There is no clear line, you plot the line and try not to cross it,” he explained. He also asked – and I believe that it is necessary for us to listen to his request – that when a media outlet like Riodoce takes the risk to publish a story that otherwise would not be told, others must pick it up and amplify it, in particular those outside the area where there is a threat of coverage; we must spread the articles written by those who face risks every day to help make the risks they take worthwhile.

We were discussing this when Garza, when asked about his own experience with violence, said something I find relevant to share: “No matter how difficult things are at this moment, we have to make young journalists, those who are barely starting, understand the current state of the press in Mexico, violence, threats, these are part of a cycle, but they are not permanent. All phenomena are cyclical, and this one is too. The press will be very different in Mexico in 10 years; this is going to happen.”

What Garza states holds not only for the work done by him, Valdez Cardenas, or many other colleagues. It is supported by the fact that those who engage in journalism in the most adverse conditions have developed the ability to take a few steps back and see the big picture: the best journalist is not one who unnecessarily risks his or her life to report everything today, but the one who knows that in certain moments one only has to get close enough to phenomena to understand and retain the surrounding information; to obtain elements that once the cycle ends, will be used to explain what occurred in the past.

So say the texts Valdez Cardenas stores in a drawer, which wait for the opportune time to be published. This is also shown by the mechanism that is being developed by Garza to identify and classify aggression against journalists.

The previous evening, as he introduced the journalist Alfredo Corchado — the Mexico correspondent for the Dallas Morning News threatened because of his coverage on drug trafficking — Enciso, took a similar approach to Garza: “We cannot keep giving young journalism students the idea that putting their life at risk is necessary to become a good journalist. This is not necessary; it does not have to be this way. Becoming a good journalist is achieved through many other means.”

Those of us who have participated in the construction of this movement must say to those who come take our place that things do not have to be this way; they were not like this before and they will not be like this in the future. That violence, death threats, coverage of blood and a daily count of corpses are a painful reality in this time in our history, but that they are the exception.From what I have witness these last two days, experiences and learning, I arrive at one last idea. It is not enough to understand the history of the press in Mexico, or to analyze its relationship with power. It is not enough for veteran journalists to understand that a dead reporter does not help anyone, and that in times of violence, patience is one’s best ally. It is not enough to tell those who live far away that it is their obligation to keep an eye on Mexico.

I am concerned that we are forming a generation of young journalists that place the coverage of fear at the top of the list. I am distressed as I discover that the role models in journalism are those who write lurid reports on cadavers, because those who began their career as a journalist two, three, four or five years ago have not seen anything else.

I am terrified to think that we are glorifying being persecuted, threatened, and those who must take precautionary measures. We have to remember that this is not desirable; it is the exception and to end it, we must keep working.

Those who have the ability to see a long-term outlook, from a distance, can work to change this perception in the generation coming behind us: having a panic button does not make you part of an elite; it makes you part of a national disgrace that must come to an end.

Note: this article was first published in Spanish as La violencia como exception by cuadernos doble raya, May 8, 2014. Much thanks to Eileen Truax for the permission to translate and reprint here.

View photos from the conference