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Reporters’ calculus of risk

Thursday, September 23, 2010

SO YOU’RE A REPORTER. Where’s the deadliest country you could be working? The mind will rattle through a whole range of possibilities … all probably distant as well as dangerous.

But in actuality one answer is a country that’s as close as you can get – Mexico. And one of the deadliest localities is, no exaggeration, right on our doorstep – the border-crossing of Ciudad Juarez (connecting to El Paso, Texas).


The leading city newspaper El Diario de Juarez has leapt to international prominence this week with its desperate, blood-decorated front-page crying out to the area's drug warlords who are now, the paper definitively asserts, the sole “de facto” authority in this battered community: “What do you want of us, so we don't have to pay tribute with the lives of our colleagues?"

As a measure of journalism’s overall riskiness in Mexico, the New York-based international Committee to Protect Journalists records more than 30 media workers killed there in the last three years. The country’s bloody drug wars lie at the heart of the matter, of course, with more than 5,000 citizens killed in those three years, and the press coming under ever increasing pressure to carry out the opposite of its normal mission.

A grim shorthand phrase has entered the lexicon of Mexican reporters - “Plata o Plomo”, silver or lead, meaning that you can choose – as a journalist just as you would as a politician, law-enforcement officer or businessperson – to either be co-opted by the narco-trade’s money, or be killed by one of its bullets.

El Diario has generally taken the courageous course of investigating and telling the truth as its reporters can find it – and has been paying the inevitable costs. A line was crossed for the troubled staff - prompting their dramatic front-page appeal - when their 21 year-old photographer Luis Carlos Santiago was shot to death last week, and an intern with him was wounded.


The attack further stirred the staff’s outrage at the murder of their crime reporter Armando Rodriguez two years ago – a crime whose official investigation has made no progress in that time. According to the CPJ’s report again, Mexico more than fully earns its worst-place-for-journalists ranking by operating a justice system that allows 90 percent of media-related crimes to go unpunished.




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MEXICO’S FEDERAL GOVERNMENT has in effect accused the paper of cowardice, with presidential spokesman Alejandro Poire lecturing the journalists that they shouldn’t be negotiating with organized crime. That same firm line is often proclaimed by governments around the world - in the face of terrorism and kidnapping as well as gang violence. Of course those governments have security forces at their disposal to support them in taking such a stance … which journalists generally don’t have.

El Diario’s editor Pedro Torres (above left, with his attention-getting edition) says he’s not surrendering to the forces of crime, but is simply, with realism, attempting to agree some terms. Echoing his editorial’s point that “Even in war there are rules”, he says: “We're asking for a truce because we don't want them to kill any more of our companeros”.

It must be well-nigh unbearable for Torres and his fellow journalists to be reduced to such petitioning. But journalism conducted in conditions of danger and oppression always provokes the hardest of dilemmas.

IN MY OWN personal calculus, discretion has always - to be quite frank - been the greater part of any valor I might need to summon up. The veteran British foreign correspondent David Holden and I discussed this - when we could - as we were making a hurried flight together away from Idi Amin’s cruel and capricious rule in Uganda. It was a narrow escape – later that same day the remaining international pressmen were all rounded up and incarcerated in Amin’s notorious killing-house, Makinde Prison in Kampala.

Holden (above right, in characteristic pose) had many more years’ field experience than I had then, and he told me languidly and memorably that morning: “There’s no point in being a brave reporter if you just end up being a dead reporter. We’re given sharp wits, and we’ve gotta use ‘em”.

Holden’s wits and his famously good sources rarely let him down. But they didn’t provide complete protection. Nothing is certain, after all, in the reporter's trade.

As our mutual friend Sir Harold Evans, who was Holden's editor at the time, recalls in his still-new journalist’s memoir “My Paper Chase”, this confident reporter went on an assignment five years after our shared Ugandan getaway - an assignment which involved returning to Cairo, Egypt, a city and society that he knew well.

He was found dead by a roadside, shot through the heart from behind.

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  • 09/24/10 01:09 AM Lawrence Block:

    Truly riveting newsletter this week, David. As always, thanks for it. - LB

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