Nobody’s going to do this because they want to be nice. You’re there talking about interests. You assume that they’re only going to act when they believe it’s in their political interest to act. They’re political figures, and they’re balancing competing interests, some of which are very powerful. You’ve got to put enough weight on the scale and make arguments that convince them they should reform because it’s in their political interest.
You can make those arguments in all sorts of ways. You can make it at the broad theoretical level: The democratic development of your country is dependent on having a free and open press and in the long term this is in your national interest. Some heads of state are sophisticated enough and have a long-term vision and recognize that. Then there are short-term arguments: you’re standing on this list affects the way donor countries perceive you and is going to have a very direct impact on international aid.
For the most part, political leaders recognize that this kind of negative attention in the international and the domestic media is harmful. If they can take steps to correct it, they will. The problem is they’re often confronting powerful, entrenched interests that are behind these murders. Sometimes they’re criminal groups, sometimes intelligence agencies are suspected, and it’s difficult to investigate. So you have to put enough pressure on them to confront these challenges.
Can you be daunted by what sometimes looks like an impossible task? In Mexico, for example, you’ve met with the president and made some progress. But a lot of the corruption that allows people to get away with murdering journalists is at the level of law enforcement and the courts.
It’s daunting, but you have to have a long-term view of this. We’ve seen some countries begin to turn it around. It happens in the context of a more generalized improvement. In other words, as long as the levels of violence remain at the level at which they are in Mexico, it’s going to be very difficult for the government to confront this fully. But what we certainly want to see is that it gives this area—freedom of expression, freedom of the press, violence against journalists—sufficient attention. So that as the overall environment improves, this is an area in which we start to see progress.
Keep in mind that Mexico is very complex. I was a journalist in Mexico for many years and at that time it was dangerous and difficult to write political criticism of the leadership. Now that’s gone. You can say whatever you want about the government in Mexico and nothing’s going to happen to you—in Mexico City, anyway. Now it’s much more about reporting on the web of corruption and complicity that sustains the trafficking and criminal organizations at the regional and local level. Those are the things that get you killed. I’ve seen changes in Mexico over the course of the time that I’ve been following developments there. Certainly some improvements in the overall press freedom climate. So, I have a long view of these issues, and you have to make absolutely clear to the government that you have that view and you’re not going away. They can’t simply wait for you to get tired of it.
The report says that local journalists are by far the most under fire in countries where there is violence against the press. Some of the reasons for this are probably obvious, but from where you stand, why is it that local journalists are under such greater threat?
Something like 94 percent of the journalists included on this Index are journalists working in their own country. First of all, some of the obvious things. If you’re an international correspondent and you get threatened, you leave. Or you have that option. Second of all, you probably have better resources in terms of basic protection. Maybe you live in a more secure environment in a major city or something like that—that helps. You also have a lot of visibility. If anything happens to you, it’s a huge international incident. If you look at someone like Paul Klebnikov in Russia, those are iconic cases and they’re very well known. Basically, our goal is to give local journalists that same level of visibility.
But the reality is, if you’re a radio reporter for some rural community in the Philippines, and you’re reporting that the mayor is involved in some sort of corruption, the mayor knows exactly where you live. You’re not going anyway, unless you flee your own town. But this is how you make your living and there may not be anywhere you can go. You’re really a sitting duck. That’s what makes it incredibly risky for local journalists, especially in small communities.