“In 2016, 259 journalists were imprisoned by governments around the world — more than at any other time in the past three decades — and 48 journalists were killed,” said Jim Turk, the director of the Centre for Free Expression (CFE) at Ryerson University.
Turk shared this unsettling statistic during CFE’s event, “Journalists, Free Expression and Mexico’s War on Drugs,” at the Rogers Communications Centre on March 9.
The event aimed to shed light on what is happening to journalists who have put their careers, and in some cases their lives, on the line to cover news in dangerous parts of the world such as Mexico.
Exiled Mexican journalist Luis Horacio Nájera shared his experiences working as a journalist in Mexico and how the ongoing issues with Mexican drug cartels have made his home a danger zone.
With the popularity of social media increasing over the years, the cartels have found more ways to terrorize, threaten and manipulate journalists covering news in Mexico.
“As social media grows, of course journalists’ interaction with social media also grows, and the attention that drug cartels put into social media and watching the journalists also grows,” said Nájera.
According to Nájera, drug cartels began using social media platforms such as YouTube in 2004 during the explosion of the war on drugs in Mexico, and by 2010, the cartels completely took over all online platforms and controlled what was shared with the public.
2004 began with death threat videos being recorded and sent from cartels to newspapers and TV publications to prevent them from sharing news with the public. Nájera shared a story with the audience about covering a military operation in a drug cartel’s safe house with a group of journalists back in 2008. The next day, every journalist who was on that story received an email saying that if they did not stop covering the story, they would be killed.
In 2010, a blog called, “El Blog del Narco” was created, and a video of someone getting tortured and killed was uploaded.
“This started a trend of making videos of torturing people online to send messages to the public,” said Nájera. This blog also affected the extreme growth in popularity of Twitter and Facebook in Mexico, where these torture videos would also be uploaded and shared. Nájera said that videos showing the torture of journalists became common online to scare off other journalists who tried to report on cartel news.
Nájera explained that only about two in every 100 crimes get reported on, and there is often little to no prosecution for these criminals. As a result, journalists in Mexico have learned to survive by publishing the minimum.
Documentary filmmaker James Cullingham followed Nájera’s speech and took the floor to discuss how the entertainment industry is not honest in their depiction of the Mexican drug cartels.
“Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism,” said Cullingham. “I invite us all, as Canadians, to think about the situation carefully in Mexico, and get beyond the stereotypical depictions of nasty, but somehow exciting, criminal figures with alligator skin boots and big hats.”
He called this culture phenomenon “the fetish of Narco Cultura.” There have been several TV shows and movies about the cartels that have become extremely popular, such as “Pure” and “Savages,” along with an entire category of music called the “Narcocorridos.”
“The Cordios [Narcocorridos] were originally based on the stories of the Mexican revolution…now they’re about drug dealers,” said Cullingham.
Nájera and Cullingham ended the discussion with a question and answer period, where they gave advice for young, up-and-coming journalists:
“If you want to work internationally, one of my suggestions is to be humble. You can’t go to another country with your big entourage and think, ‘I’m just here to visit, and…show how powerful I am.’ You have to be humble in order to sit and talk and listen to the people, not to look for answers that you have already. That will be honest journalism,” said Nájera.
“You have to be aware that you’re coming from a position of privilege, and understand that the people you’re doing stories on are going to continue living in that context,” said Cullingham. “I encourage any student at Ryerson to get out there and do important journalism. But be very clear, if it’s a matter of your personal safety, what you are prepared to risk.”