Posted in Industry Insights

Fighting for journalists and ‘the disappeared’

, by Paul Colford

“Several times a year, dedicated groups like this one gather to discuss the growing violence against journalists,” Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll told the Inter American Press Association this past weekend. “And every year the outrages grow, the bodies of our friends and colleagues fall and our anger boils over. And yet, nothing changes.”

Carroll discussed assaults on journalists worldwide and AP’s aggressive reporting on “the disappeared” in Iguala, Mexico, at IAPA’s 71st General Assembly, in Charleston, South Carolina. The weekend discussion can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.

She continued:

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 370 journalists have been murdered in the past 10 years and there are no convictions in 90 percent of the cases. Of course, this is not just an issue for journalists in the Americas. The past dozen years have been among the deadliest ever and the familiar war zones of Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Gaza are soaked in the blood of our colleagues. There are bright spots, if one can use that phrase about this dark topic. In June, a court in Colombia sentenced the mastermind of a journalists’ murder to 36 years in prison. The sentence was seen as a victory for the journalists who had lobbied for years to see justice done for Orlando Sierra Hernandez. This is not a theoretical topic for me. Nine journalists have died on the job since I became editor, four of them last year alone. Too many others have been badly wounded. Bloodshed is not the only method of control … the nations of China, Russia, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Mexico and Ecuador are called to account for the intimidation, incarceration and attacks on journalists. Journalists in Turkey are increasingly in jeopardy, their offices and staffs attacked, local and visiting journalists alike thrown in jail without charges and little recourse. The flood of migrants into western Europe has exposed kindness and xenophobia toward the people on the move and fresh batons and jail cells for journalists covering the ugliest reactions, particularly by those in uniform. And here in the United States, where the Constitution enshrines freedom of the press in the very first amendment, the government has turned the might of federal prosecution and the threat of prison on journalists in ways not seen ever before in the history of the nation. These days, many U.S. federal employees are prohibited from talking with reporters about even something as trivial as the weather. We decry it all. We demand justice. We spend enormous sums on attorneys trying to pry loose journalists jailed unjustly. We push and push and push and wonder if our protests are simply shouts down an empty street. There are victories, of course, but they are swamped by new waves of oppression and violence against us, the messengers. And those victories are won only after months and even years of pushing on our part, often the tedious and incremental work of meetings and negotiation. The challenge is more than a little daunting. But we must not lose heart ... Because we are not just fighting for ourselves, our colleagues and our profession. We are fighting for the rights of the ordinary people. We work on their behalf. We report to give them information they need.

Carroll recounted AP’s recent reporting in Mexico, where a total of 25,000 people have vanished since 2007, including 43 college students who disappeared last year:

The anguished families [of the students] demanded to know what happened. The saga became an international outrage. The attention gave other families the courage to begin speaking out, first only to each other. We wanted to hear their stories, too. To learn about their vanished relatives and their own pain. So we went to Iguala. Iguala is in the southern state of Guerrero, about 110 miles south of Mexico City. Many of the 300,000 residents are farmers, cab drivers and laborers. Six AP journalists went to Iguala dozens of times over many months, seeking to gain the people’s trust. They met in the church where families organized searches for their loved ones. From the start, the journalists told the families they wanted to chronicle not just one story, but as many as they could. After a time, the families voted to participate. We interviewed 158 family members and recorded hundreds of hours of them telling their stories. Almost all agreed to be photographed holding a picture of their missing relative. We used their individual portraits to create a larger one, one large picture of heartache made up of many. Click on one of the individual pictures and you’d learn more about the missing person and their family left behind. But they tell their stories better than I ever could. So let’s hear from them …
Just a few days ago, we went back to Iguala to show the end result to the families. They spent many hours looking at the pictures, listening to themselves and their neighbors. Their hearts are still broken, they still struggle with how to move on. But they are silent no longer. This is just one story from one news organization. Many, many others across the region do the important work of bringing their community’s stories alive and standing up to thugs and over-reaching governments. Will discussions like this one halt the repression and violence against journalists? No. But they do give us the chance to remember why we fight. To support each other when we are discouraged or numbed or lost in grief. It’s important to remember the good we can do. And to gather the strength to keep fighting. For ourselves. And most important, for people like the families of Iguala.

Related articles

Dying in the pursuit of news
(March 30, 2015)

AP President: Killing of journalists should be a war crime
(March 30, 2015)