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When journalism is a "suicide mission"

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS--Practicing journalism in Mexico and much of the Arab world can be a “suicide mission,” a panel of reporters explained Friday with chilling accounts of murder, intimidation, surveillance and censorship.

There are areas of Mexico where criminal cartels are “more powerful that the elected authorities,” Tim Johnson, a Mexico City-based journalist with McClatchy Newspapers told an audience at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. “They’ve insinuated themselves entirely into newsrooms. Journalists can’t really say no.”

Seizing control of the press, Johnson said, is accomplished gradually by luring underpaid journalists with under-the-table payments that quietly deputize them onto the payroll.

“(Reporters) eventually realize (the cartels) know everything about you. Before long, you’re in their mob. You’re utterly trapped.”

Next come demands – from ignoring or spinning stories on command to surrendering their personal homes to the cartels for weeks at a time without explanation, Johnson said.

“You may have great reporters in newsrooms in a small town. But eventually, one of them, if there are criminal organizations there, is going to get bought off,” he said. “One reporter suddenly has a new car and is suggesting what should or shouldn’t be covered. It’s clear they’re working for he narcos. But if you fire him, you might get killed yourself.”

Gaston Monge Estrada, a Tamaulipas-based correspondent for El Universal in northern Mexico, explained, through translation, the surveillance that can be part of daily life for him and his colleagues: “We are followed, photographed…They knew where we lived, they knew when we left in the morning, they knew where we worked. They knew everything about us. And they could listen in on the telephone.”

Several of his colleagues are among the dozens of Mexican journalists that have been killed in recent years.

Those murders have not led to a single conviction, the audience heard.

“Despite all the circumstances, we’re going to continue doing investigative reporting,” Estrada said.

Rana Sabbagh, executive director for Arab Reporters for Investigative Reporting (ARIJ) and the Jordan Correspondent for The Times of London, is working to promote investigative reporting in countries including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen.

The Arab Spring that brought so much promise to the region has, in many cases, exchanged one oppressive regime with another.

“(We thought) the new guys that have always been the victims of these dictators would become more tolerant,” said Sabbagh. “It turns out they are as ugly and brutal as the guys they replaced.”

Evidence of that ongoing tyranny is evident throughout the region, she said.

In Egypt, the newly minted regime quickly replaced editors at 45 state-run newspapers with their own “cronies,” she said.

In Tunisia, journalists at one newspaper went on strike for more than 40 days to protest government attempts to impose a new editor.

In Yemen, journalists have been killed and attacked without triggering charges or prosecutions, she said.

“Every journalists in this network is on a suicide mission to tell the truth.”

Robert Cribb is a foreign affairs and investigative reporter at the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @thecribby


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