Writing Rights Ltd
“WE ARE BETWEEN THREE FIRES: ORGANISED CRIME, GOVERNMENT, AND BUSINESS.” INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN MEXICO
Journalist, Campaigner, Director of Writing Rights
This article was originally published on the website of the Hay Festival - here.
“Some of this work has revealed entire infrastructures of corruption – bringing to light information which some people wanted to remain in the dark. This work strengthens democracy,” said Roldán.
Between 2013 and 2017, the government spent 38 billion MSP (roughly 53.7 million USD) on ‘official advertising’ - buying space in the media to distribute information to citizens. This opaque and discretionary allocation of funds to the media has historically proven to be a way of controlling editorial lines. “There is a difference in what we are doing: we are not transmitting messages from politicians, we are doing a slower form of journalism – finding out who is really governing us and how they are doing it,” said Roldán
The panellists agreed that there are cases, however, where corruption and impunity are revealed, but the issue remains unaddressed and there is no impact at a structural level. Turati described the government responding to stories, not with reform but instead by becoming better at lying, and better at hiding the truth. She also emphasised the importance of optimism: “We have to hope that all of this information will serve to bring justice and truth.”
Páez Varela was sceptical about the potential for change, with the penal system being in chaos and public structures unable or unwilling to reform: “Stories are not penetrating public life – they serve to create a memoir but not a change – neither on the government, nor on the people.” He referred to the case of the Odebrecht corporation, whose corrupt activities were uncovered by investigative journalists. “You can create all the evidence you like – it means nothing. We are the only country which has not had consequences for Odebrecht.”
Roldán disagreed, pointing to the case of Duarte, the ex-governor of Veracruz who is currently in prison in Mexico on corruption charges. “There was a consequence, we achieved that. We keep going, keeping hope that any moment something will happen, that there will be consequence.”
Journalism faces vast challenges in Mexico, which is the most dangerous country in Latin America for journalists; 2017 was the deadliest year for journalists since 2000, with 12 murders recorded by freedom of expression campaign Artículo 19. A variety of topics inspire threats to the safety of journalists, as Turati pointed out, “It isn’t just journalists covering organised crime who are killed: policing and politics are sensitive topics too – but risk could emerge anywhere.’’
Regional journalists doing investigations face particular dangers, and often face a lack of support, low pay, and even greater impunity for attacks against them. “There are too many killed and disappeared – the majority of them are poorly paid, without labour rights. There are many silent zones, and press which are for rent to the government, who silence information,” said Turati. These risks are substantially lower in Mexico City, “It’s a bubble,” said Roldán.
As well as fear and violence, money is a significant obstacle to public information. Enrique Peña Nieto, current President, has spent more public money on buying media than any president ever, around 70 million pesos, which combines with the culture of official advertising and the wealth of the companies and institutions which are often being investigated, creates major obstacles to revealing information: “There’s a mountain of money in the way of real investigation,” said Páez Varela.
Regardless of the risks, the job is a calling for investigative journalists: “It is your work: to inform. Where silence wins, many are suffering, and death wins. We feel this important mission that we have, and we must moderate the risk,” Turati said.
Various security strategies are being used to minimise risk to journalists and their publications when they are publishing or working on an investigation: sometimes outlets will share the story with other publications and they will all publish simultaneously, which also helps create more impact for the story. Many stories do not carry a by-line, some are published and shared from specially-created sites, and strategies are increasingly taught to journalism students in universities.
Psychological strategies and coping mechanisms are also being taught in universities, said Turati, and for good reason: “Covering these things can rob you of emotional stability and happiness in life."
For small and independent media, it is a constant hunt for a sustainable financial model, experimenting with paywalls, paid content, subscription, and donation models – some even starting a cafe or selling books. “I don’t want to limit access, but we need money to investigate. It’s an ongoing debate: we don’t live on official advertising and we don’t want commercial advertising either,” explained Roldán.
Turati added, “The good news is that great independent outlets have emerged in states in Mexico, and collective groups are dedicated to helping each other. Journalists keep flourishing - coming together and believing that it’s worth the pain. I know journalists who are Uber drivers in the mornings to finance themselves investigating murders in Veracruz.”
And what about the incoming president? Roldán said, “Each new regime has its own strategy for hiding information – I don’t yet know what Manuel’s will be...”