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.
In countries that rank highly on the Impunity Index, what is the presence of other advocacy groups—local groups with a similar mission to CPJ? Do they exist and do they have an impact?
In many of these countries, there are strong local groups and they absolutely play a critical role in mobilizing local journalists and generating domestic attention on this issue. It’s really the pincer of international and domestic pressure that gets these governments to listen.
It’s pretty startling to read in this report that 40 percent of journalists who were murdered in the listed countries in the last decade had received threats before they were killed. Does CPJ have a recommendation for journalists about what they should do should they receive a threat?
At the IFEX meeting we had a panel discussion about this very thing, responding to threats. The issue is complex. We looked at different countries and how different governments have responded. I started out our discussion with a journalist from Pakistan, and I asked him about the murdered Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad: how does a journalist like that respond to a threat, where does he turn?
To make a long answer short, the answer is that he has nowhere to turn. He did what is the best thing you can do. He tried to make key people aware of the threat, like the researcher at Human Rights Watch and colleagues in the journalism world. He wanted to make sure that everyone was aware of the threat so that if anything happened people understood where the threat was coming from. But there was no one in the government he could turn to, there was nowhere he could go for help.