Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists worldwide. Three Mexican journalists speak about working in a challenging environment and the direct links between content, audience, networks, and safety.
Enormous levels of violence, forced disappearances, and widespread impunity for these crimes have made Mexico one of the most dangerous countries for journalists worldwide. Moreover, there has been extensive online surveillance of independent reporters by officials. A protection mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists set up by the government in close collaboration with civil society organizations failed to provide the expected respite for reporters that are being attacked because of their work, mainly due to political unwillingness. Early hopes that the current government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or short: AMLO) would improve the safety situation quickly faded as the President and other officials showed a readiness to regularly undermine the media’s independence, calling them 'fake news'.
Despite this hostile situation, a number of independent online media start-ups have been set up in Mexico focusing on local news. DW Akademie spoke to Amapola’s co-founder Margena de la O Vargas, Ernesto Aroche, co-founder of the news website Lado B, as well as Jade Ramírez, Coordinator of the media network Periodistas de a Pie, about working in one of the most challenging environments in journalism and the direct links between ethical content, audience engagement, networks, and safety.
DW Akademie: Ernesto and Margena—you both co-founded your own local independent media outlets in one of the most dangerous environments for journalists worldwide. What have been the biggest challenges so far?
Ernesto Aroche: At Lado B, our biggest challenges have been financial sustainability and labor security. We have been trying to resolve these, especially since Lado B was founded as a journalistic space that was supposed to be different from traditional media in Puebla and in the whole of Mexico—with a different, much more ethical journalistic agenda. We saw that other media outlets in Puebla were completely removed from their audiences or were just close to those people with political influence, who were sustaining the media outlet financially.
Our professional skills and our ethical values have enabled us to produce high quality content. As a result, we get much recognition and respect from our journalistic peers and, most importantly, from our audiences. The aspect that we paid the least attention to in the beginning was financial sustainability—for some time we financed Lado B with the income which we derived from working for other media outlets, which, of course, was very exhausting and not sustainable at all. But we soon realized that in order to ensure Lado B’s viability, we had to fully dedicate ourselves to Lado B and stop working for others. So, we did!
Margena de la O: We are still a young media outlet. Financial sustainability, of course, is a big challenge. But every year we hold a meeting with our readers and discuss the topics we want to report on, which we even started before we founded Amapola. We organized a dinner with some supporters—our future audience—to discuss our ideas.
This was our first fundraising activity, and it allowed us to create our digital news site. We also have a citizen editorial team, which consists of representatives from different civil society groups. It acts as an ombudsman and gives us feedback on our work. We are now trying to develop a subscription model together with the other members from the Periodistas de a Pie network.
Lado B and Amapola are both members of Periodistas de a Pie. What is the network’s role in terms of safety?
Jade Ramírez: Initially, Periodistas de a Pie was a space for journalists to meet and exchange experiences. But of course, safety soon became an issue due to the increasing threats to journalists that started in 2006.
To us, safety is closely linked to us journalists adhering to and identifying with high quality and professional journalism. This is what will make you different from other journalists and media outlets in this country, many of which have close links to those in power or have been captured by drug cartels. It is vital to distance yourself from that. And it’s important to see the link between these relationships and the safety situation for media workers.
When a journalist gets killed in Mexico, the logical reaction is to call on the authorities to carry out a thorough investigation. But what we really need to ask is: What was the reason behind the killing? How ethical was his or her content? Because, unfortunately, there are also many journalists that spread false information.
At Periodistas de a Pie, our vision is not to shield all journalists from aggression or to simply provide a protection mechanism to save a journalist’s life—quite the contrary: We aim to generate the necessary overall conditions for reporters to stay in this profession and to help them reflect on their work. Our aim is to bring these journalists together so that they can discuss and work on certain issues, and for them to receive the capacity building they need.
We know that we won’t be able to extinguish unbalanced and false journalism, but we want to highlight this issue and provide the necessary capacity building. In an insecure context like ours, it is important for journalists who produce high quality, ethical journalism to have the support they need, to have someone who will listen to them and be there for them in times of need—and that is the main role of Periodistas de a Pie.
Have Amapola or LadoB faced any concrete safety incidents?
Ernesto Aroche: At Lado B, we have had few security incidents. Once our offices were attacked, then police came looking for us at our private homes—not our offices!—after we filed charges. They said they were taking us to the judge, but we think that this was meant to be a sign, as if to say: we know where you live, we can always send the police out to you.
But overall, we believe that we have not had any more incidents due to the networks we have created with Periodistas de a Pie and our journalistic prestige within the media community. The financial aspect is still the most difficult and leaves us with the concern of how to ensure that the people working for us can report in safety and security, that they receive an adequate salary, get the necessary medical protection, and a proper pension when they retire.
Margena de la O: Up to now, we have not had any security issues, not as a media outlet nor at a personal level. Of course, there have been small incidents, but we have not had any direct threats. Our advantage is that all of us working at Amapola have a strong professional journalistic background and a solid track record in terms of professional reporting. This is a fundamental element in terms of security, and it was an essential criterion when we put together our team.
Is there a general awareness of the link between quality journalistic content and safety?
Jade Ramírez: For media outlets belonging to the Periodistas de a Pie network, this link is very clear and is getting stronger by the day. Many others, including the big media conglomerates, are continuing to report in a way that endangers not only their reporters but the people they are reporting on.
Too many are not aware of the negative impact their reporting can have, especially big teams of reporters who are sent from the capital to very violent rural areas, do their reporting and then leave again. Often, local journalists and local communities have to deal with the consequences.
What role does the audience play in terms of safety?
Margena de la O: Our close relationship with our users is fundamental to our safety and to our viability. We have seen that when a journalist gets killed in Mexico, there is no outcry from the general public. And it’s not that there should be because we as journalists are more important than others who get killed. Rather, it’s about the role we play in society. When a journalist gets killed or threatened there is an implicit problem: I, as a citizen, am losing someone who will explain things to me and provide the information I need to take informed decisions.
With so many journalists killed, people have become indifferent. We need to explain to our audiences why journalism is important. Because the people attacking journalists are also working hard to defame our profession as a whole, spreading the word that journalists are involved in organized crime and illegal businesses. Of course, these journalists exist but that should not keep us from investigating each case to find out what really happened and who is behind the attacks.
How do you plan to do that?
Margena de la O: Our engagement with the audience took quite a while. But we were thinking: how can we educate our audience to recognize what quality journalistic content is? It’s really complex because we believe that the general public is also responsible for professional and good quality journalism, that their responsibility does not end with leaving their ten pesos at the newsstand. They also have to demand high quality, ethical journalism. We are still in the middle of this process and we see media and information literacy as a very important element.
Our audience realizes that Amapola is independent, also due to all of our audience engagement and fundraising activities. In our statutes, we have laid down that we can accept advertising money but never to promote a political candidate or certain policies.
How has COVID-19 affected the already difficult safety situation in Mexico?
Ernesto Aroche: Let me give you an example from Puebla: our Governor, who like our President regularly disqualifies media outlets that criticize him, constantly calls on the media to align themselves with his narrative as he argues that this is the ’security narrative’. This means that we must all send out the same message so that people follow the COVID-19 rules. We need to explain to our audiences why journalism is important. Of course, there is a certain logic to that, so as not to confuse the general population and keep infection rates low. But at the same time, it silences any criticism.
Jade Ramírez: In the first weeks of the pandemic, there were press conferences where politicians and journalists wore masks but were still standing too close to each other. Editors think: our journalists are used to working in a crisis, so they will know what to do in this crisis, too. However, reporters themselves feel that they are not prepared, but they have no choice but to continue doing their job if they want to keep it. There are no protocols in place to safely report on the pandemic, neither for journalists nor for their interviewees.
There is increased espionage and a more aggressive attitude, but this is a general phenomenon within the whole of society, not just towards journalists. In terms of espionage, we know that like other countries, Mexico has established protocols to ensure that mobile phones are being tracked for their geographical location to mitigate the risk of the virus spreading. Unfortunately, there is no time nor the opportunity for journalists to report critically on this issue and question the impact it has on society. Mexican journalists work in such precarious and insecure conditions that they don’t have ’the luxury’ to complain about worsening working conditions and increased stress. We just had a huge wave of dismissals of media workers across the country, so everyone that still has a job in this pandemic will not complain, for fear of losing their job too.
Margena de la O: When we started Amapola, we knew that times would be hard until we were sustainable. The pandemic has made this even more difficult—it has caused so much financial uncertainty. Precarity is the worst of all insecurities. Not having a regular salary causes depression and insecurity and costs a lot of energy. We need to accept that these are very complex processes.
What safety measures have you taken?
Margena de la O: We are very rigorous with editing what we publish and how we publish it, and we are very aware of the threats that exist. We sometimes spend hours discussing how we can report on certain topics without endangering our reporters or the communities we report on. Instead of saying: Due to security reasons, we cannot report on this, we ask: How can we report on this in a safe way for everyone? And we develop safety protocols. We are very clear what the security situation is in Guerrero, we live it every day. Of course, we can get things wrong, but we try to minimize the risks as much as possible.
Ernesto Aroche: Together with the other members of Periodistas de a Pie, we have been working on a safety protocol. This also includes a publication strategy to minimize possible attacks. At one point, one of the Periodistas de a Pie members in Veracruz had a very sensitive report which we knew could endanger the life of the reporter. As a safety measure, the members of the network decided to all publish this story at the same time.
At Lado B, we have also started to be very transparent about our income sources to build more trust with our audiences and strengthen this relationship.
At the big media outlets, there are some efforts to increase security, but these always focus on the individual journalist, not on the media outlet as a whole. When it comes to safety training, it’s usually not the media outlet that is asking for capacity building but the individual journalist. And most of the training sessions are taking place in Mexico City, so they aren’t very accessible for journalists based elsewhere.
Jade Ramírez: I am still so convinced that the solution for those that are affected by security issues is to organize themselves and have open discussions about these topics, also because there is quite a lot of fear of repression amongst journalists. If a media outlet, no matter how big or small, started setting minimal security and labor standards, it would see the benefits. Because while there are a lot of journalists around, and newsrooms can just fire one today and hire another tomorrow, there isn’t an endless supply of qualified journalists. Media managers need to take on the responsibility of ensuring adequate, timely payment. We have colleagues working for big media outlets who have not been paid for a month or two.
How do you see the future of media safety in Mexico?
Ernesto Aroche: Given the poor financial situation in our country, I don’t see any changes happening automatically. But I also think that new ways of connecting with the audience are currently being developed, also as alternative ways to improve financial sustainability. Of course, people are still experimenting, but I believe that in the long run this will bring good results for financial sustainability—as well as producing content that is closer to civil society, and further integrating civil society into media viability strategies. We should see the results in two to three years.
Jade Ramírez: I don’t see much opportunity for improvement, also due to the way that the current Mexican government is acting. In the middle of the pandemic, the government decided to give most of its advertising budget to the two TV conglomerates and cut their taxes, something that was not granted to all the independent media outlets which reported much more critically and were struggling financially. To me, this is a clear political message against media plurality.
Margena de la O: We must believe that there are opportunities in a crisis because otherwise we would not survive. We have new ideas every week to improve our content and our financial situation. There are always defamation campaigns, trying to undermine us, but people know that we work professionally and that we don’t take sides. And this protects us and our reputation. The stronger your professional trajectory is, the more secure you and your media outlet are.
Ernesto Aroche is co-founder and Editor of Lado B. A graduate of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Ernesto has been working as a journalist for various national media outlets for more than 20 years. He has made local journalism his trench, journalistic investigation his battlefield and transparency one of his main tools, but also one of his journalistic obsessions. Ernesto is a board member of Periodistas de a Pie and coordinates the network’s capacitybuilding activities for its members.
Margena de la O Vargas is a reporter from the state of Guerrero, covering social movements and telling the stories of those who are struggling in every corner of the state. Before co-founding Amapola Periodismo, she worked for several national media outlets as a correspondent. She is a member of the Journalists’ Association of the state of Guerrero (Asociación de Periodistas del Estado de Guerrero) and author of the book Ayotzinapa, La travesía de las tortugas (Proceso, 2015). She has been awarded a scholarship with the Press and Democracy program (PRENDE) at Ibero University (Mexico City) in “Narrative Journalism“.
Jade Ramírez Cuevas Villanueva is a reporter, producer, radio host and human rights defender. She is co-founder and Editor of the online media outlet Perimetral as well as a board member of Periodistas de a Pie where she also coordinates the area of Networks and Freedom of Expression. She has received several awards for her journalistic work on human rights, socio-environmental conflicts, and denunciation of corruption. After surviving a series of attacks as a result of her investigations in 2010, she began consulting for the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists but resigned after denouncing fallacies and irregularities in the procedures and administration of the authorities involved in the mechanism