TOPICS > Politics

Mexican Media Face Perils Reporting on Drug War

August 25, 2010 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Ioan Grillo of GlobalPost reports on the dangers journalists face in Mexico reporting on the country's violent drug war.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: As the violence continues to mount, even gathering the news has gotten dangerous in Mexico.

We have that story from Ioan Grillo of the international Web site GlobalPost.

A caution: This report contains graphic material.

IOAN GRILLO: A Mexican reporter tried to do a stand-up in the northern city of Reynosa. But with bullets and grenades flying just below this bridge, he and the cameraman were forced to lie on the concrete.

Gun battles like this have become almost daily affairs in Mexico, as heavily armed drug cartels fight each other and the government over billion-dollar trafficking routes to the United States. Mexican networks and newspapers have to make some tough choices on this drug war. They have to decide how to tell the story, how much blood and guts to show the public, and how to protect themselves.

Milenio, a serious-minded 24-hour cable news channel available to some three million families nationally, has broadcast some of the most extensive coverage. It has put out rapid and graphic reports of massacres, mass graves and car bombs. News director Ciro Gomez Leyva says viewers remain very interested in the story.

CIRO GOMEZ LEYVA, Milenio News Channel (through translator): The story that the country has lived in the last four or five years is the most important story in almost a century. There has not been another moment so difficult, so painful, so bloody and so dangerous as the one we are living today.

IOAN GRILLO: Over-the-air channels, whose biggest news shows have some two million viewers, have also made the drug war the top story. All networks have paid a big cost for their coverage.

CIRO GOMEZ LEYVA (through translator): In the last 14 months, criminals have murdered one of our reporters. They held another reporter and cameraman, beat them up, and let them go after three hours. And they kidnapped a cameraman and held him for a week as a hostage.

Facing this, as the one in charge of Milenio TV, I can’t say nothing is happening. They talk about self-censorship. Well, that is true. Where they held our reporters, we haven’t sent a correspondent back, and we probably won’t. Who am I to send reporters to this place where they risk their lives? This is a war.

IOAN GRILLO: During the kidnapping, gangsters forced the channel to show homemade videos in which they tortured police officers. Federal agents eventually freed the abducted journalists, shooting one of the kidnappers in the leg.

Following that, Mexican journalists marched to government offices protesting the violence. These photos are of media workers who have been murdered. In total, more than 30 Mexican journalists have lost their lives since President Felipe Calderon came to power in 2006 and declared a war on drug cartels.

Such violence has made many journalists shy away from investigative reports. And, in some towns, newspapers even fail to cover certain shoot-outs and massacres, out of fear. However, most newspapers across Mexico still make the drug war the top story. Many also publish in their pages so-called execution meters, counting the number of people killed in drug-related violence.

Mexico has a total of 340 newspapers, which together are read by about 10 percent of the population. On our recent visit to one of Mexico City’s oldest and most upscale newspapers, Excelsior, which sells about 100,000 copies, editors were planning the next day’s front page. They were leading with the kidnapping and murder of a city mayor.

PASCAL BELTRAN DEL RIO, editor, Excelsior (through translator): We try not to just be a mirror of the violence. We also we want to give the context and explain the consequences of this violence on the population.

IOAN GRILLO: Beltran says the paper is careful about its coverage of the most gruesome acts, such as the severing of human heads. It runs stories that address the violence, but don’t try to sensationalize it, as some of the other newspapers might.

PASCAL BELTRAN DEL RIO (through translator): We took some time to realize that the gangsters were using murders and beheadings to send a message to rival groups and the government and society. At first, we didn’t realize that by photographing these scenes and writing about these scenes, we would fall into their game.

IOAN GRILLO: President Felipe Calderon recently met with directors of Mexico’s big media outlets to urge networks not to give voice to criminals and to support his government crackdown.

FELIPE CALDERON, Mexican president (through translator): The real threat to society, the true enemy, are the criminals, not the government, at least not in this case. The first step is to recognize who are the bad guys and the bloody ones of the movie, and those are the criminals.

IOAN GRILLO: Calderon urged the media not to run any videos or written messages by drug gangs. Analyst Jorge Chabat, a professor of international studies who has authored several books on Mexican security issues, says the media coverage has been a mixed bag.

JORGE CHABAT, Center For Research and Teaching in Economics: There are some newspapers or TV or radio stations that have — that have been very responsible. However, there are others that I think that have exaggerated a little bit. They have put the images, beheaded persons on the front pages and all this kind of graphic violence, which basically doesn’t help too much to explain what is going on, and obviously is going to — just to satisfy the morbid curiosity of people.

The criminals make all this graphic violence obviously in order to impact public opinion. And the — the more attention you give to these incidents and to this violence, well, the — the happier the criminals will be. And, in some — in some sense, yes, some media are playing the role of supporting the — the criminals. They are playing the same game.

IOAN GRILLO: Back at Milenio TV, director Ciro Leyva says he would love to have newscasts with no reports of bloodshed, but has to keep reporting the conflict that rages on daily.

CIRO GOMEZ LEYVA (through translator): I have to cover it. These are the big stories. The country is living through a violent narrative. I can’t understand when people blame this on the media. We are not the ones who brought this violence, and we are not the ones who can stop it.

IOAN GRILLO: Until there is peace on the streets, these journalists say, the Mexican drug war will be televised.