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"Despite the attacks, the threats... journalism is always worth it"

The Asociación de Medios de Información spoke to Adrián López, the managing director of one of Mexico's most important media groups, to discuss the situation in a country that has witnessed a spate of attacks on journalists in the last month.

"Despite the attacks, the threats... journalism is always worth it"

Adrián López is the managing director of Grupo Noroeste, a media group based in Culiacán, Mexico, that publishes the newspaper Noroeste. A prominent defender of the freedom of the press in the North American country, López discusses some of the reasons why, in a little more than a month, there have been at least eight attacks on journalists in Mexico, leading to five deaths.

The first journalist murdered was José Luis Gamboa, the editor of the online media outlet Veracruz, at the beginning of January. In the weeks that followed, the photographer Margarito Martínez and the journalist Lourdes Maldonado were both killed in Tijuana. The fourth victim of this spiralling violence was Roberto Toledo, who worked for the news website Monitor Michoacán. And, in recent days, there have been at least four further attacks on media professionals. Most recently, the editor of the news site RCP Noticias, Heber López Vásquez, was murdered in Oaxaca on 11 February.

López has intimate knowledge of the situation. Indeed, the uncompromising, critical stance adopted by his media outlet has led it to be hit hard by what he refers to as “organised crime”. The publication has experienced shocking incidents such as a shooting at its Mazatlán office that saw at least 27 people receive gunshots. In 2014, moreover, López was himself the target of an attack in which he was shot twice and narrowly escaped death.

A witness to what goes on in one of the most dangerous regions in Mexico - albeit things have been “exaggerated by Netflix”, he tell us - López gives his take on why so much violence is occurring with such impunity. In Mexico, indeed, around 98% of all cases involving murdered journalists remain unsolved.

2022 has begun with a frenzy of attacks on media professionals in Mexico. What are the reasons behind a situation that appears to be getting worse year on year?

It’s a chronic, structural and systemic problem affecting society as a whole. Since war was declared on drug trafficking in 2006, the situation has got steadily worse, to the point where there have been more than 100,000 murders a year in the last three years. Put another way, someone is murdered in Mexico every 14 minutes. And the biggest problem is the level of impunity that exists; it means that murdering a journalist pretty much comes without consequences, because there is no social or political cost. But what’s most worrying is that it’s not only organised crime, drug traffickers who are doing the killing… The State itself is also involved, as part of a parallel state caused by the corruption of political and police actors.

I imagine the media is mobilising against so many attacks, against so much violence.

In recent days, we’ve held demonstrations on the streets of 20 cities, but there have been only around 1,000 people at each one. It’s mostly journalists and reporters who take to the streets to demonstrate; you don’t see the people at the top of the media outlets, other than a condemnation on Twitter or in their media outlet. What we lack is organisation among media outlets, allowing us to work together, with leadership that can open the eyes of public opinion and the authorities. We need to put forward something that goes beyond our own media outlets. I was at the demonstration in Culiacán, in my city, and being unable to achieve something that truly made an impact left a bittersweet taste in the mouth.

What is preventing this alliance between media outlets, this movement that would allow you to create a common front against situations such as the violence we’ve witnessed in recent weeks?

My view is that there are three chief reasons. Firstly, there’s a lack of social support. It’s something I would talk about with Javier Valdez before he was killed [Valdez was a Mexican journalist who received several international awards for his writing on drug trafficking and organised crime, and was murdered while doing his job in 2017]. As a group of professionals, he said, journalists are on their own. People have plenty on their plates as it is just making it through their day to day, he said. That’s particularly true of the last two years, in which we’ve been going through a pandemic and the Mexican government has been no help to people, either in healthcare or economic terms. And we’re in a climate where investment is at the levels of 10 years ago and the mortality rate is the highest in the world. Against this backdrop, it’s hard to get people to care.

The second reason for this lack of togetherness in the media is the situation the industry itself is in, one where advertising has been disguised subsidising by the State so that media outlets can survive in exchange for not being critical of it. That has led to a situation in which media outlets are less concerned with keeping their audiences informed than pleasing those in power. And this year, the State’s expenditure on advertising will be a third of that assigned to last year, with a law on transparency in advertising still pending. Media outlets need to carry out a digital transition that allows us to grow, gain audience and be more independent from the powers that be.

And the third reason is the public’s lack of trust in journalists. It’s a lack of trust that’s also fed by those at the top. It’s very easy to discredit and criminalise the victim, because that justifies the impunity. And we know there’s going to be impunity except in very particular, emblematic cases, such as mine, for example. You can only get to the physical perpetrators, not those who are behind it. If there are media outlets that sustain this situation because, in part, they are financed by those in power, anyone can attack a journalist without it having a social or judicial cost.

But there are mechanisms in place in Mexico to protect journalists and other groups, such as human rights defenders. It’s estimated that around 500 journalists have signed up. Is this only a façade so that it looks like journalists are being protected and defended?

You’ve touched on a key issue. The Mexican government has become a past master in making it look like advances are being made. I rejected this protection because of the impunity that exists, and because of the complete lack of independence, the ineffectiveness, the ineptitude and the corruption of state and federal prosecutors, who are the ones who have to guarantee the safety of the people protected. Why am I saying this? Because we’ve had cases where a journalist harassed by a city’s police has been given a telephone and a panic button connected to the same police department that is harassing him. Or journalists who have been given a telephone for their protection and receive threats on that same mobile, which is supposed to be secret. So, clearly, when tools that are supposed to protect you end up being a source of fear, the system isn’t working and is corrupted. And that fear of attacks of all kinds on journalists, either in person or by digital means, ends up leading to self-censorship and silence, which is the death of journalism.

It’s very difficult to do journalism in such a climate. And also very difficult for a democratic system to work.

The murder rate has rocketed in the last 10 years and criminals occupy more and more space in public life. The most recent elections, in 2020, were the most violent in history, with more than 20 candidates murdered, urns stolen, electoral officials kidnapped… As long as impunity remains the rule, it’s going to be very difficult to do journalism. There’s a lack of true social and judicial justice. Knowing what happened and why, and that there’s a guarantee of reparations for the damage caused and that it won’t happen again.

Let’s turn to your situation, with attacks against your media company and against you. What is it like working in this situation and how do you protect the people who work for you?

I firmly believe that media outlets have to look out for the safety of their journalists. They’re not killed in violent situations; they’re killed as they leave the office, around their homes. And although you can’t put a bullet-proof vest on every journalist, you can try to protect them. At Noroeste, we take legal action against any attack on our team, whatever the type and whatever the motive. And we do that as a way of sending a message to the authorities. To a certain extent, it has allowed us to achieve greater institutional protection.

What’s the protocol you follow in these situations?

Firstly, we publish content on the issue, with complete rigour and ethical tact. Then we try to react as quickly as possible when there are threats, kidnappings, incidents of harassment on social media… We look to be swift and not underestimate any case. If anyone comes to us with something, we try to protect them. And treat every issue specifically. For example, last year we suffered the kidnapping of a photographer in the city of Mazatlán, in Sinaloa state. We mobilised, using contacts and resources to try to react as quickly as possible. And we achieved a level of mobilisation, across the profession even, that applied enough pressure to ensure there was a happy ending. But that’s not a common situation. In central and southern Mexican states, it’s even reached the point where there is no traditional media, and many journalists create their own, quasi-individual, small media outlets that operate through streaming. They don’t have the protection of a company or the authorities. And when there’s a tragic ending, the truth is we’ve all failed.

We also have two figures that are key in each city we’re in. One is a psychologist who can treat our journalists or workers, be it over an issue of violence or threats, or any other kind, including personal issues. They are there for any situation. And the other figure is a lawyer who can offer advice and support. But I’m aware that we’re an unusual media outlet, with seven ownership families and no distribution of dividends. We’re almost like an NGO. One with a 50-year tradition of critical reporting, always independent of state publicity.

Mexico recently reformed its judicial system. Has that not contributed to protecting journalists?

For seven years, we’ve had a new criminal justice process that is much more modern and, among other things, allows for the presumption of innocence. But it has further strengthened organised crime, which tries to protect the attackers, and has weakened the justice system, the police and the prosecutor’s office, which has lost power. Our chief problem is a justice system that enables the high level of impunity that exists in our country; the climate of fear and violence we have to endure every day. And there are media outlets that decide not to do journalism, because in exchange they aren’t harassed or murdered. They’ve had to relinquish their very essence. Organised crime has infiltrated everything, and that makes any defence mechanism very difficult.

Let’s get back to the topic of media outlets organising into a common front. There are examples such as the Australian media taking on Google, or, closer to home, cases in Brazil and Argentina. Isn’t it possible to do this in your country?

The media industry is very fragmented. There are several organisations, but they’re not able to achieve much. And we have a president who, every Wednesday in his morning press conference, has a space called ‘Quién es quién en las mentiras’ (‘The who’s who of lies’). A look back over recent media criticism in which the press is vilified and attacked. Andrés Manuel López Obrador also uses other opportunities on a daily basis to criticise a certain journalist or media outlet that he doesn’t like. This climate ends up permeating the public and criminal organisation. It scares journalists, because they’re going to be singled out. And there are media outlets that are even hostile towards other media outlets that are critical of those in power. This makes it very difficult for the media industry to organise, and makes us more vulnerable. If you accuse journalists of being liars, conservative, neoliberal, corrupt, part of a certain bloc… it’s a way of pointing the finger at them and creating a climate of “they deserve it”. Such tags are arrows fired against our profession. It’s an Orwellian climate.

In this context, I imagine it’s difficult to make the call for a digital transition to reinvent the business and look for other forms of financing.

We’re just starting out in Mexico in this respect. Just 5% of our digital audience is subscription-based. We’re among the most backward countries in the world in this regard. But a recent study by WAN-IFRA has shown that 60% of media outlets are convinced that the model they have to head towards is digital subscription. We’re throwing ourselves into the question of how to produce content that is profitable, but right now we’re stuck between clickbait to make an impact, and attracting site visits with sensationalism, with videos of violence, etc. As long as the journalism we do isn’t important enough for people to miss it, it’s going to be difficult to get people to appreciate the significance of losing media outlets and journalists.

What do you think the media will look like in your country in the years to come?

I always say that it’s harder to predict five years ahead, because we don’t know what’ll happen in the immediate future. But we can guess at what’s going to happen in two decades. And if you want to see the future, go to Finland or Norway. I’m in no doubt that in Mexico and around the world, rigorous, critical journalism will be behind a paywall. And, as I’ve said previously, the reduction in the government’s investment in the media is going to force us to look for other forms of financing and not to play along with those in charge. It’ll be subscription-based, working with social media and other, new tools. What’s important is that we’re allowed to do our job without the interference of either criminals or the State.

Finally, Adrián, in such a situation, is it worth it being a journalist?

Someone has to do journalism; real journalism. The key idea is the service you can provide for those around you, just as previously someone else did it for you. And despite the attacks, the threats, the constraints… journalism is always worth it. It can be a thankless profession, but when you do a social service, like raising funds for someone who needs a wheelchair or a team that needs funding for a tournament abroad; or when you investigate and put the spotlight on a corruption scheme and, at least, manage to get those guilty of corruption into court, before a judge - that’s your reward. And people, Mexicans, need and deserve to have that.


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