Back in March, owners, editors and journalists from over 40 media groups including over 700 television channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines, gathered to sign a voluntary agreement setting up a series of guidelines in order to cover the ongoing war against organised crime in the country.
Throughout a very formal event at Mexico City’s National Anthropology Museum, press officials lined up to sign this unique pledge. The gathering was broadcast live on national television.
The pact — the Informative Violence Coverage Agreement — sets out to establish mechanisms to ensure a better protection for Mexican journalists, preserve the anonymity of all victims involved in issues revolving around crime and prevent media outlets becoming involuntary “propaganda instruments” for criminals, mainly by refusing to question or interview them.
The sheer numbers of participants reveals an apparent consensus. It received thumbs up from conservative Mexican President, Felipe Calderón, known to be a regular critic of the coverage of violence by the Mexican media, which he accused last autumn of solely focusing on the “bad” aspects of the country.
Some parts of the agreement should be welcome. Its principal breakthrough came from the decisions that every signing outlet would have to establish a protocol aimed at protecting the lives of journalists. Measures include not sending staff members to recent crime scenes and other dangerous areas, or not signing articles likely to jeopardise their author’s integrity.
Many have also praised the initiative to regulate the publication of crude or graphic images depicting murder scenes.
However, one of the stated goals of the pledge has created a controversy which has led some of the country’s major newspapers in the country to opt out: it wishes to create “common editorial criteria” which all signing parties should apply when covering violence related stories.
The six-page document then details a series of criteria — in ten bullet points — which include: “taking a stand against” organised crime, “explicitly attributing responsibilities”, be it to government human rights abuse or to criminal actions, “not interfering in the struggle against delinquency” and “giving information in its right dimension and context”.
These arguments did not convince La Jornada, a centre-left daily printed in Mexico City and one of the country’s most influential national papers. It published an unsigned, critical editorial soon after the pledge was signed, calling it “an unacceptable renunciation of editorial independence”, an attempt at imposing “a sectoral model of uniformity”. The editorial went on to criticise the pledge’s will to take a clear stance against organised criminal created a “prejudice” which would likely be done “in detriment of the information inherent to the facts”.
Speaking to the New Statesman, José Luis Ruiz, editor for Mexico City’s El Universal — a major national, daily paper that agreed to sign the agreement — praised the pledge’s objectives and denies it is in any way intended to standardise the news industry:
“This engagement is aimed at keeping the news central […], it does not force anyone to adopt one particular type of conduct […] and we still have a total and absolute freedom when it comes to choosing what content we wish to publish”.
Ruiz also argued that the current dangers encountered by his fellow journalists made such an initiative necessary. He argues that criminals “threaten” his colleagues, “sometimes giving them tacit orders as to what they should or should not talk or write about”.
The Agreement constitutes the second attempt in a year by outlets of the Mexican media to act against organised crime. Last August, the Human Rights Commission of the northern state of Chihuahua issued a protocol for local journalists. The state’s initiative sparked heavy criticism by suggesting the latter should “avoid incisive questions” when facing dangerous situations.
The war on drug cartels and violent gangs has made Mexico one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked the country 136th out of 178 in its 2010 Press Freedom Index, describing the country’s situation as “dire”. At least 65 journalists have been killed since the year 2000, according to the Mexican Human Rights commission, and several more have been kidnapped. Most of these events take place in the northern states bordering the US where the main trade routes for drugs and weapons are found.
Just weeks ago, two journalists — one of which was a 20 year old — were found dead in the north-eastern state of Nuevo León.