PEN Protesta! Blog #5

Written by Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International.
Saturday afternoon: Just came from a terrific meeting with freedom of expression activists based in Mexico City. An intense, two-hour session conducted in both English and Spanish, with Mexican PEN’s Aline Davidoff making interpretation a form of performance art. We heard from local representatives of international NGOs, (Article 19, CPJ, AMARC—community radio), and from the wonderfully named organization Periodistas de Pie, which means Journalists on the Street—representing citizen journalists and bloggers. They are a deeply skeptical and frustrated group; one seasoned journalist spoke of the important moment in 1984, when the murder of the prestigious and popular Mexican investigative journalist Manuel Buendia was virtually ignored by media, public and authorities; it was the beginning, he said, of the age of impunity. We heard how the northern areas of Mexico get all the attention, whereas things are bad in southern states as well; and not only are there threats, deaths, the attackes on the families of women journalists, there are also instances of “forced migration”—at least twelve journalists who’ve been intimidated into exile. We heard how anyone brave enough to write is immediately discredited by rumours of their own corruption. The Journalists on the Street were very clear on their need for training, of all kinds—in ethics, in how to access databases and read financial documents, in how to encrypt material, how to establish protocols for risk. Community radio stations are also targets of rumour campaigns, accused of warning criminals of police activity; they also struggle to exist because of terms of licence, which prevent them from advertising, so they can’t raise money to pay for their equipment. Several people spoke of the impact of all of these things on the right of Mexican people to news and information, and the consequent degradation of democracy itself. Organized crime swoops into a small town, and systematically first corrupts the mayor and other public officials, then the police, and then the local press. They mocked the idea that the protection of journalists, by government, takes the form of police escorts and bullet-proof vests. They suggested that the federalization of crimes against journalists has created a “limbo” because there is not a strong prosecutor, and too few investigators.

Sunday afternoon: PEN Protesta, in the garden of Casa Lamm, a lovely old house that has been turned into a cultural center. As the crowd, and media gather, we realized that we were in the company of some of Mexico’s greatest writers and respected journalists. We’d each been told we must limit out message to 200 words; we’d be passed the microphone, we’d stand and say our piece, and hand on the microphone. (We all have trepidation in advance about this, knowing, as writers, how we are given to improvisation when handed a microphone, and there are almost sixty of us…will this work?)

We faced a large, attentive audience, spilling over onto the lawn. One by one, people stood, read their statement, and sat down. There was no other sound, except the occasional hopeful bird, only these disparate voices, old, young, most in Spanish, some in English; there was also a duo of indigenous women activists from Chiapas, who sang a high-pitched sweet song, plaintively requesting the departure of the army. An actor from the Theatre of the Deaf mimed the frustration of censorship. Immediately after the final speaker had spoken, the Banda de Tlayacapa from Monterey struck up behind the audience, a brass band reminiscent of funeral bands in New Orleans, except that they were seated, wearing ponchos and sombreros. And we mingled, drinking tequila in champagne flutes.

Here are excerpts from the statements by two of our Mexican colleagues:

Poet Luis Miguel Aguilar

:…Si matan a los periodistas es porque no respetan el periodismo; lo que equivale a decir que no nos respetan a nosotros como sociedad, donde la prensa libre es uno de nuestros bienes irrenunciables. Cuando no maten, amenacen, o censuren a los periodistas, podríamos decir que respetan al periodismo. Y estoy seguro de que este mediodía, en solidaridad con periodistas mexicanos inermes, es una contribución decisiva a este respecto. Y a este respeto.

Journalist, novelist, essayist Elena Poniatowska:…

…¿hasta cuándo ejercer el periodismo será una sentencia de muerte? ¿Cuánto tiempo más debemos esperar para que las autoridades ofrezcan garantías reales que protejan la vida la profesión? ¿Cuánto tiempo pasará hasta que dejemos de ser el país más peligroso de América Latina para ejercer el periodismo?

To find out more about the PEN Protesta! campaign and event read the Mexico section In Focus
Follow #PENProtesta on Twitter
Read Marian’s PEN Protesta! blog #4 #3 #2 #1