How safe is it to be a journalist in Latin America?
This weekend, journalist Regina Martinez (left) was murdered in her home in Veracruz, while French correspondent Romeo Langlois (right) ‘disappeared’ in Colombia.
By MANUEL RUEDA
Additional reporting by Paulina Gomez
Two incidents this weekend highlighted some of the dangers faced by journalists in Latin America.
The first, is the murder of Regina Martinez, an investigative reporter for Mexico’s Proceso magazine, who was found strangulated in her home in Jalapa, the capital city of the violence-ridden state of Veracruz.
The second incident, was the disappearance of Romeo Langlois, a French journalist covering a Colombian military operation against the FARC guerrillas, who was presumably kidnapped by the rebels after a gun fight broke out between both sides.
Both incidents occurred under very different circumstances. Yet both journalists could be casualties of the same “war.”
A war waged by criminal organizations and drug trafficking groups across the region, but especially in Mexico, Colombia and Central America, to control media outlets and information flows.
“Drug traffickers and organized crime understand information [outlets] as something valuable that can bring benefits to them, or something that can damage their illegal activities. So they try to influence [the media] in different ways,” Carlos Lauría, from the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists told Univision News.
Lauría says that in Mexican states where drug trafficking groups have a large presence such as Veracruz, journalists and media orgnizations that report on issues like the drug trade, crime or government corruption are often threatened into silence and self censorship. Those who break the norms imposed by cartels risk paying with their lives.
“In general, the expansion of organized crime, in different parts of Latin America, has generated more acts of violence against journalists, more censorship and more impunity,” Lauría said.
According to the watchdog group, more than 43 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since drug violence began to spike in the country in 2006.
In Honduras, where cartel activity is on the rise, the CPJ reports that 13 journalists have been killed over the past two years.
Lauría explained that drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and elsewhere in the region try to control the media in order to hide information about their links to local governments or in order to circulate information that can damage the reputation of rival cartels.
In Colombia, he said it is “almost impossible” for journalists who live in conflict-ridden zones to report on the activities of groups like the FARC, the paramilitaries, and their links to local government.
In that context, correspondents based in Bogotá, and foreign correspondents become a crucial source of information for balanced coverage on Colombia’s armed conflict.
But when they enter conflict zones, as was the case of the currently disappeared French journalist Romeo Langlois, these correspondents can be threatened by armed groups who suspect they are enemy collaborators, or by groups who do not want them to cover the “enemies” side of the story.
That’s what happened to David Beriain a correspondent for the Spanish website ADN, who was declared a “military objective” by paramilitary groups in Colombia in 2008 after he produced a web documentary about life in a FARC guerrilla camp. Beriain fled the country to save his life.
In Mexico, the motives for the murder of Regina Martinez, Proceso’s Veracruz correspondent, are still unclear. But Martinez seems to fit the profile of other journalists who have been victims of cartel violence.
“She was not any journalist,” Balbina Flores, the Mexico representative for Reporters without Borders told Univision Noticias.
“In her job she really covered issues that made an impact, she covered public safety, justice and local politics,” Flores said.
According to the CPJ, 78 percent of journalists murdered in Mexico since 1992 have covered the crime/police beat. More than 80 percent are said to have died at the hands of organized crime. In contrast only 15 percent have been on the politics beat, and just four percent covered sports.
In Veracruz state itself, two journalists and a photographer who covered the police beat for local newspaper Notiver were killed last year.
Before she was killed on Saturday, Martinez had been investigating the deaths of the Notiver journalists, as well as the murder of Rogelio Martinez Cruz, an activist killed in the city of Veracruz just last Thursday.
Martinez’s editors at Proceso have said that they will send a journalist to Veracruz to investigate their reporter’s death.
They will also monitor investigations carried out by prosecutors in Veracruz and by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, and promised to take every action necessary to find the truth.
But in a column this morning, the magazine said it is “skeptical” of the Veracruz government’s efforts to investigate the murder, adding that “it did not believe” that local officials would solve the case.
There is good reason for the magazine’s lack of trust in local officials. According to the CPJ’s figures, 88 percent of journalist murders in Mexico have gone unsolved.