Dangerous Work: Female Journalists in Mexico

Dec 15, 2015 | Issue 2 - November 2015, Issue 2 Features, Mexico

Female journalists frequently face challenges on the job that their male counterparts do not. These range from the potential of sexual assault while on assignment, to cultural attitudes and practices that prevent them from getting the full story, to discrimination in newsrooms keeps them from plum assignments. And in recent years, female journalists have faced harassment on a new front: the internet.

In the first installment of an ongoing series highlighting these issues, WAF examines the case of Mexico, where violence against all journalists has reached record levels, and where the environment for female journalists—especially those covering sensitive topics such as organized crime—has become especially hostile.

Jennifer Dunham


By Mariana Martínez Esténs

November 2, 2015, marked the Day of the Dead in Mexico—an annual holiday for remembering deceased friends and family members and helping to support them on their spiritual journey through the afterlife. Amid the warm glow of altar candles, Mexican journalists gathered in Mexico City to honor their slain colleagues. According to the Inter American Human Rights Commission, one out of every three journalists murdered in Latin America is killed in Mexico.

London-based organization Article 19 has documented 326 attacks against journalists in Mexico in 2014, 63 of them are against female journalists. The attacks against women has increased considerably going from 32 per year during former President Felipe Calderón’s administration to 59 in 2013 and 63 last year, under President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Many of those Mexican journalists being targeted are brave women reporting on such sensitive and potentially explosive topics as government corruption, organized crime, and the rights of women and indigenous people.

Gender is a key component of aggression in a country still facing deeply rooted “machismo.” In addition, Article 19 found that cyber attacks on Mexican female journalists reached an all-time high in the first half of 2015.

It states, “In all of the cases there is a violent language with clear sexual connotations, discrimination and misogyny that are made to hamper the flow of information. In registered cases there is the following type of violence: sexual harassment, threats of physical violence, death threats, showing private pictures and private material without consent, photomontages aimed at stigmatizing and humiliating in social media.”

Article 19 has also cited that in many of these cases, the investigation finds that the threats came from the private lives of the journalists, citing personal, family, or passionate crimes, serving to undermine the journalists’ job or obscure the true motives of the attacks.

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Photo credit: Knight Foundation via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) 2015 Global Impunity Index—which ranks countries based on the number of journalists killed and cases unsolved—placed Mexico eighth on its list of offenders, just behind such current or recently war-torn countries as South Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan. CPJ noted that 19 Mexican journalists covering crime and corruption were murdered with complete impunity during the last decade.

“I am not sure how I could work in a country where threats [against members of the press] are so widespread. They can come from politicians, drug cartels, or someone else, and we are not talking threats by executions,” said Zineb El Rhazoui, a columnist with the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, in a recent talk at the Oaxaca Book Fair in southern Mexico. “What I know for sure is that every time a country is ‘sick,’ every time sickness touches a country, journalists always pay the price.”

While much of Mexico has long suffered from high rates of violence, including attacks against writers and reporters, Mexico City until recently was regarded as one of the few remaining safe havens for journalists in the country. But this perception changed in July 2015 when Rubén Espinosa, along with a well-known human rights activist and three others, were tortured and murdered in the capital city. Espinosa, who had covered violent police crackdowns against public protestors, had fled Veracruz—one of the country’s most dangerous states—the previous month, after being threatened. As of December, his case remained unsolved.

Laura Castellanos, a veteran journalist who has written about armed conflict and the rights of women and indigenous people, has faced various threats during her 30-year career, including a 2010 break-in at her home in Mexico City. Though she agrees to an interview, she warns that the authorities are tapping her phone: “We are living in a state of total impunity: no investigations, no one in jail, no reparations made. The perception is that criminal violence is on one side and the government is on the other, while in fact we are living in a narco-controlled state.” She adds, “If a journalist is attacked while reporting on a subject such as a demonstration by indigenous community members against the seizure of their land by corporate developers, it’s likely that those involved in the attack did so in collusion with government forces.”

Credit: Knight Foundation

Photo credit: Knight Foundation via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

The fact that criminal elements and government figures are so closely linked in Mexico makes it difficult to pursue or find justice for journalists who have been threatened or attacked for their work. “The moment a journalist files a complaint, it sets up an institutional mechanism to cover those who are involved in such threat, to hamper the investigation from moving forward, because those responsible are likely to be part of the same system that is supposedly there to protect us,” Castellanos explains.

A Dangerous Path

Norma Araceli Alarcón, whom everyone calls Buba (“doll” in Hebrew), is a 32-year-old independent journalist. In an effort to stay safe, she is constantly on the move, spending time in Chihuahua, Ciudad Juárez, or in rural communities deep in the Chihuahua mountains.

“The ones I fear the most are the ministerial police; they make me so afraid. When I’m out in the field, they make veiled threats. They make me feel vulnerable, small … Once I overheard them saying, ‘She is so tiny, we can throw her in the van and no one would notice.’ I was shaking, looking for my recorder, because at that moment all you have is your recorder to defend yourself,” she says.

Communication and Information on Women (CIMAC, for its acronym in Spanish) is a nonprofit organization formed 26 years ago that specializes in journalism with a gender perspective. The collective has documented the gender-based violence that female journalists experience daily because of their critical and independent journalism.

In its latest analysis, CIMAC documented 47 cases of aggression against female journalists in 2013. The average age is 30, half are staff reporters, and 30% are mothers. Their findings seem to back up Alarcón’s experience with police; half of those attacked are assigned to the political beat and 32% of aggressors were public servants—particularly state police—and in 5 out of 10 cases, there is physical violence including holding, pushing, and pulling female journalists during the coverage of an event.

CIMAC finds more journalists are filing former complaints compared to 2012, yet is also finds an increase in “institutional violence,” referring to acts, omissions, and negligence handling such complaints.

Having chosen such a dangerous profession, many female journalists have opted not to have children. Alarcón, who is raising a 20-month-old boy alone, questions her decision to become a mother. “Sometimes I regret having him. I ask myself why did I do it if it makes me an easier target?

Alarcón recalls a particularly violent period in Mexico’s recent history. In 2008, the homicide rate exploded in areas including Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez as rival drug cartels fought for control of lucrative narcotics markets, and innocent victims were often caught in the crossfire.

“For me, the year 2008 was the worst, not because I had to be where [dead] bodies were found, but because of the situation as a whole: the police, military, and journalists were all there judging how women were dressed, their makeup, where they were found. The public then read the newspaper where these women are described as whores, when in fact most of the victims were children, girls who had no responsibility for being attacked.

Media Censorship

Cecy Bencomo (her name has been changed to protect her identity) is 31 years old and works as a photographer for a multimedia company in Chihuahua. For the past two years, she has been working full time for just 240 pesos a day, or around $15.

She has fought against sexist jokes and language in the newsroom but finds editors and senior journalists fail to see the need for change in journalism culture. “I have colleagues that use sexist language both inside the newsroom and in their published pieces. When I complain or question their actions I’m called an angry feminist or too sensitive to be in a newsroom,” she recalls.

In March 2015, Bencomo filmed a brief television report about a new mural in downtown Juarez honoring musical legend Juan Gabriel. The mothers of young women who had disappeared—and were presumed to have been among the victims of the town’s widespread violence—demanded that those walls should instead be used to post signs about their missing daughters. But local authorities refused, claiming that it would “damage the city’s image.”

“The news directors took down my story from YouTube. They told me I should take out the parts that were critical of the mural even though they make up just 18 seconds of a 7-minute film. I didn’t want to fight, so I did it. I think I’ll start freelancing soon. I’ll be just as poor, but I’ll have my freedom,” Bancomo says.

Media outlets are frequently afraid to criticize the government since most rely heavily on official advertising. Those members of the press who do challenge the authorities face possible retribution, including the loss of their careers. In March 2015, MVS News anchorwoman Carmen Aristegui and her editorial team uncovered a series of million-dollar gifts from a contractor to the president and his family; she was subsequently pressured into leaving her job.

Credt: Knight Foundation

Photo credit: Knight Foundation via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Journalist Sanjuana Martínez, who has investigated such controversial topics as human rights violations and organized crime, filed a lawsuit in July 2006 against the leftist magazine Proceso for firing her and censoring a story she did about child abuse involving Cardinal Norberto Rivera. In a rare legal victory for opponents of censorship, a judge in 2015 ordered the company to pay Martínez nine years of lost wages. “This has been a lonely fight. It’s not the same to be censored and unjustly fired from Proceso as from MVS or Televisa, but it should be, no matter what the ideology or editorial line. This has nothing to do with being left or right, this is strictly a matter of justice,” Martínez wrote on Twitter.

Choosing Home or Exile

Today, despite the dangers, female journalists in Mexico are continuing to address various politically sensitive topics: investigative journalist Anabel Hernández has written about the notorious drug lord Chapo Guzmán; magazine reporter Marcela Turati has focused on the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in the town of Ayotzinapa in which government officials and crime syndicates have been implicated; and journalist and human rights activist Lydia Cacho has reported on child pornography and prostitution rings, as well as businessmen in the state of Quintana Roo taking over “indigenous” community land.

Many journalists have paid for their bravery with exile abroad, such as poet and journalist Dolores Dorantes who fled Ciudad Juarez for the United States in 2011 after receiving death threats for her writings condemning the drug-related violence in her city. She was granted asylum the following year.

Ana Lilia Pérez, a journalist who has written extensively on corruption, human trafficking, and organized crime in Mexico, has faced legal persecution and death threats for her courageous reporting. “A corrupt businessman offered me money, trips, and a ‘guaranteed future’ in exchange for not going public on my investigations on his illegitimate business. I refused, and continued doing my job. Then he decided to sue me. He sued me so many times that I lost count. I don’t even know how many hearings, depositions, and testimonials I went to. I’m not sure how my life became so difficult. I ended up having to deal with abuse of power, obstruction, harassment, tapped phone lines—all of that for doing my job,” Perez writes in her memoir.

Despite reporting on corruption on the national gas company Pemex with a male colleague, CIMAC finds the legal actions were mainly aimed against her. She now lives in Germany.

Those journalists who remain in Mexico have sought and found some protection through various mechanisms, including membership in independent collectives such as Periodistas de a Pie (Barefoot Journalists) or Red de Periodistas de Ciudad Juárez (Ciudad Juarez Journalism Network) both founded and headed by female journalists.

Others collaborate with male journalists, particularly when working in more dangerous environments. The veteran journalist Castellanos recently partnered with a male colleague for an undercover report on human trafficking in Honduras. “We had a hidden camera, we pretended to be a couple asking for services to smuggle a child. [My male colleague] was the one who did the talking, the bargaining, and led the conversation. We had a plan, a strategy to get the story,” says Castellanos.

Meanwhile, independent journalist Alarcón says that developing patience and perseverance has helped her to continue reporting on sensitive topics. “The whole issue of fracking [a controversial method of energy extraction that has prompted environmental concerns] here is exploding. I was recently in Pino Alto, in the mountains, where there are a lot of Canadian mines that are creating orange-colored lakes. Other mines owned by Carlos Slim result in silver-colored lakes. I made a quick visit to the mines because it’s hard to get access. I was there to research a story about women who had ‘disappeared,’ but I couldn’t help but report on this other story as well,” she says.

She didn’t want to publish the story about environmental pollution, so she instead shared her findings with environmentalists who filed a complaint with Environmental Authorities in Mexico PROFEPA to stop the current fracking permits. “It’s frustrating not to publish everything I know. I used to get upset, but I’ve learned to wait until the right moment, create alliances in the meantime, make myself stronger, and keep telling the truth,” she concludes.

Most Recent Cases

On Saturday, November 21, two journalists, Anabel Hernandez, investigative reporter and Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, a columnist from La Jornada and director of a leftist news site, Desinformémonos, denounced that their homes had been broken into. Though just a few objects were taken, a surveillance video showed a woman and three men entering Hernandez’s house and looking around. Hernández, who is known for her articles about the notorious drug lord Chapo Guzmán, had recently published a series of stories about the disappearances of forty-three students in Ayotzinapa in which she had documented testimonials pointing to various law enforcement agencies for torturing those they had arrested in order to receive confessions.

Muñoz, on her part, had come home the night of November 20th to find the door of her home unlocked, her clothes strewn on the floor, notebooks were taken, and boot footprints all over.

That same day, the body of photographer Juan Carlos Landa was found in Veracruz, ten days after he had disappeared.


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