What’s the key to ‘scorpion journalism’?

“The media in Mexico is tremendously sick but will not die”

The words of YouTuber Chumel Torres, who joined Honduran journalist Graco Pérez for this event at London’s Canning House, the UK-Iberia & UK-Latin America foundation.

Mr Pérez opened in a determined fashion: “a more informed press leads to a more informed population”. He acknowledged that Honduras was a developing country and admitted obstacles to progress.

He said that many reporters practise self-censorship over fears from organised crime, government interference and societal corruption.

He went into detail over the more serious issues facing journalists in Honduras as well, including an “alarming level of violence and lack of protective mechanisms”.

In spite of this, Mr Pérez insisted that press freedom as a whole has been managing to grow through social networks and the space they provide.

Chumel Torres declared early on that he had no journalism background but rather came circuitously into presenting what is his wildly successful online political and cultural satire show, ‘El Pulso de la Republica’.

Alongside what is rapidly becoming regularised violence against reporters, he laid out what he sees as the problems facing the media in Mexico.

Torres noted that “the public sees the press as government puppets” and that the media have “lost their strength”.

His prescribed medicine for the press was the need to “try to be reborn”.

During the question-and-answer session with the audience that followed, Torres touched on the role of the media in the run-up to next year’s general election in Mexico, lamenting threats made against radio, print and TV journalists but finding gold in the dust with a message of hope: “[there’s] a bright path just behind the curtain”.

Graco Pérez said that the media can build up wider networks of trust and influence but must do so whilst understanding the need for meticulous research and extreme caution. He admitted that the environment online, on mobile and in print is still volatile in many parts of Honduras when it comes to threats to reporters.

This blog pondered the rise of citizen journalism and the immediate coverage of breaking news offered by the public through their phones.

The room agreed with the notion that the “internet never forgets” and both speakers agreed that millennials are pushing the pace and breadth of news and the different platforms for consumption.

The two speakers didn’t think that traditional media should worry too much about the explosion in citizen journalism and that there would still be the need for questions, analysis and follow-up enquiries by ‘traditional’ journalists.

Chumel Torres had the last word, calling for a return to what he called “scorpion journalism” – achieved through: regaining trust; rethinking how you are working and what you are working on; and challenging yourself as well as challenging power.


Guatemala talking

On Monday 11 February, the Guatemalan foreign minister, Fernando Carrera, attended several events in London. This is a review of the talk he gave at Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute

Guatemala is a small nation. With a population of 14 million, it is dwarfed in many ways by its huge northern neighbour, Mexico. So on matters of policy it generally tends to stick together with the other little Central American states. Its foreign minister is a stocky, smooth-talking economist who was at great pains last night to point out the much larger ambitions that his country has – particularly in terms of regional integration.

Fernando Carrera, in a late afternoon talk at Canning House, focused his short speech on regional integration and relations between Latin American countries as a whole and the democratisation of the region.


Carrera could not have been more excited by the prospect of a closer economic and political club for the Central American countries. He was especially vocal about the possibilities of partnership between the southernmost five states of Mexico long with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – “[that will be] part of our future, for sure”. He then added Cuba to the guest list for entry to what he labelled the ‘4 x 14 million’ group. These are four areas: Southern Mexico; Guatemala; El Salvador and Honduras; and Cuba that have about 14 million people and may be open to getting together to form another Latin American bloc. Such alliances are not rare. From the Organisation of American States (every North and South American country), through CELAC (the same lot minus the US and Canada) to ALBA (a leftist group of eight states), the politicians of the region seem to spend a lot of their time dreaming up acronyms for the next combination of countries.

One of these blocs that Carrera eulogised was the Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile); he praised its abilities to “go beyond traditional markets”. This comment could have been seen as a slight nudge to some of those aforementioned blocs, which pander to regional trade and policy. The Pacific one is trying to get the nations on the other side of the ocean involved as well. Guatemala is an observer of the Alliance. However, he did also make sure he underlined the importance of running a healthy home as well as planning holidays abroad – “by supporting each other, we learn how to get out of war” and “it’s clear today that creating economic opportunities in Central America is very easy”.


Mr Carrera used the latter part of his talk to address the current state of democracy in the region. He was openly happy that Latin American countries had finally got over the hurdle of arguing about different political ideologies and got on with some proper dialogue at the head-of-state level. He said that a “united Latin America can now be considered” and that democracy had opened the minds of the people of Latin America in a way that had not been previously possible.

After his talk, Fernando Carrera took four QUESTIONS, of varying themes:

He was first pressed on Guatemala’s relations with Belize. The two countries have been disputing their shared border for many years and have agreed to hold simultaneous referenda in October on submitting Guatemala’s territorial and maritime claims to the International Court of Justice. Mr Carrera did not mention Belize when he was discussing teaming up with his neighbours, despite the two countries’ proximity to one another. This omission was noted by the audience; the minister called the issue “challenging” but he did say that he would “love Belize to be part of the regional integration plan”.

The second question focused on co-operation between Guatemala and its neighbours to try to combat the ongoing violent crime in the region. The politician said that one major problem that needed fixing was the weakness of the state actors of Central American countries. He conceded that this had been lacking in his nation, saying that the strengthening of national executives, legislatures and judiciaries across the area was paramount to being able to take on the violence in a strong and measured manner.

After that, Mr Carrera was asked about further integration with Mexico. He referenced simple ideas such as academic exchanges and grander plans like a possible chamber of commerce between certain areas of southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Finally, I wanted to know what steps the minister could take through his foreign affairs role to try to safeguard the lives and rights of Central American migrants making the dangerous journey through Mexico to the United States. Crimes against migrating workers – regularly travelling illegally and therefore taking even more hazardous decisions and routes – are common and range from robbery to rape and murder. Mr Carrera had spoken a lot that evening about integration and it seems that it is only with international action that such violence could possibly be confronted. The minister said it was a “pity not to be able to guarantee the migrants’ lives and rights”, saying that his government will “do our best to avoid this horrible situation”. He highlighted that one way to try to act was through ensuring that “we strive not to allow state actors to violate rights or perpetrate crimes” against the migrating workers.

Long-grass policy?

Cannabis policy moves in the US and Uruguay re-ignite calls for drugs strategies to be reviewed

Earlier this week the Mexican president Felipe Calderón joined several regional counterparts for talks. One of the topics up for discussion was the possible social implications of legalising the sale and possession of cannabis. The Mexican leader, who has two weeks left in Los Pinos before the handover of power to Enrique Peña Nieto, has spent most of his six-year term waging a brutal and costly war against drugs gangsters in his country. On Monday he spoke of another tactic: legalisation. This is a popular idea in Latin America and former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, along with ex-Brazilian leader Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have all said legalisation has to be considered.

Another country in the Americas that has thought about scrapping national penalties on the sale and possession of pot is the US – albeit at the moment on a state rather than federal level. On 6 November the vast majority of the United States was focused on a very different set of policy arguments: the tax plans; jobs measures; foreign ideas; and grand-standing of the candidates in its presidential election. But in three (safe Democrat) western states, voters were also going to the polls over the issue of legalising the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Colorado and Washington passed the vote whilst Oregon rejected a move to get rid of criminal penalties for possession and cultivation of cannabis recreationally. At a federal level, the United States does not currently favour the national legalisation of pot-smoking but that position is changing in the presidential offices of some of its regional neighbours.

In Uruguay, the government has faced up to the issue of weed consumption rather than trying to deny it or only discuss further penalising it. Montevideo is set to establish a ‘National Cannabis Institute’ through which the state will regulate the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. The government has said it is determined to offer what it describes as ‘better quality’ pot than that which is currently bought and sold on the Uruguayan black market. It is a novel way to confront the issue.

Socially, the Americas seem to be driving the global discussion on drugs regulation. But there are still differences from country to country. Unlike Mexico, Uruguay is not fighting a bloody civil war, wrought with the images of decapitated men and women set against a backdrop of hillsides flaming as fields of confiscated cannabis are set alight. To say ordinary Mexicans are tired of the destruction would be an understatement. They long for a way out of the violent mess. Is that exit labelled ‘legalisation’?

Consumption within Mexico is not the issue at hand – but would more wide-ranging reform of the system in the US, particularly on a federal level (or with the compliance of federal authorities to laws passed in individual states) calm the warfare to the south? Gangs would have less reason to smuggle weed into a country where it could be grown and sold legally. Mexican politicians have tried forging secret pacts with the gangs; they have tried to crush them with the civil deployment of the armed forces. They need a new way.

The policy moves at either end of the Americas underline the international dimension to the drugs debate. Could the gangs be defeated through cross-border measures and agreements? Mexico has lost a lot of energy in the war on drugs. Surely the talks hosted by Felipe Calderón this week with the leaders of Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica demonstrate that there is everything to gain by closer neighbourly chats: talks over how to deliver a social policy blow to the gangs rather than using bribes or bombs?

Reporting the dead: Part Two

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the second part of a two-part blogpost. Here we analyse the figures since 2006.

  • 2006 – 2010 – Death toll: 529

a) The five most deadly countries

1. Iraq 127

The ongoing insurgency has caused the most problems for reporters but religious conflict between the different Muslim congregations and ethnic troubles towards the Kurdish north of the country have contributed to make Iraq the most dangerous nation for journalists in the last 5 years. The withdrawal of UK and US combat troops was meant to herald a change in the fortunes for Iraqis but the militancy has continued.

2. The Philippines 59

Developing fast with a mushrooming population, the Philippines is becoming a deadly platform for reporting. Inter-religious divisions and ethnic bonds spill over into the politics, which sees a number of assassinations every year. Journalists are regularly caught up in the shootings.

3. Mexico 47

Five years ago, Felipe Calderon was sworn into office as Mexico’s president. In the same year he launched his ‘war on drugs’, an aggressive policy of taking on the gangsters head-to-head with the military spearheading the campaign. Five years later and a staggering 28,000 people have died in the violence. The majority have been gang members, but thousands of policemen and soldiers have died too. And so have 47 journalists, unsure over what to publish and what to broadcast as the cartels’ media influence grows. As the war intensifies and continues, it becomes an increasingly deadly news story to report.

4. Pakistan 38

The NATO coalition’s war in Afghanistan has spread to Pakistan and although operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, over the last 5 years there has been increased activity in Pakistan; both by the Taliban and by mainly US forces. When the militancy is added to religious strife, the ongoing Kashmir situation and corrupt politics, it is clear that the journalistic atmosphere is particularly dangerous.

5. Somalia 23

A country without a full-functional government since 1993, Somalia has been the scene of fierce fighting and warfare mainly between government troops and Islamist militias, of which Al-Shabab is the most prominent. Recently, African Union peacekeepers have been trying to improve stability in the capital, but intimidation and violence from the militants have meant very little press freedom.

b) The rest of the world

Africa (18): DRC 7, Nigeria 7, Angola 4

Asia (70): Sri Lanka 15, Afghanistan 14, India 14, Nepal 9, Thailand 6, Israel/Gaza 5, Indonesia 4, Lebanon 3

Europe (26): Russia 21, Georgia 5

Latin America (44): Colombia 19, Honduras 14, Venezuela 7, Guatemala 4

Reporting the dead: Part One

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the first part of a two-part blogpost analysing the data.

In 2010, 105 journalists were killed. Since 2006, 529 have died. The risky countries are not surprising. However, there are different reasons for the dangers faced by reporters and cameramen out on the roads.

There are two main sets of figures the PEC has released: this blogpost will look at this year’s figures and the next blogpost will analyse the global total of journalists’ deaths since 2006.

  • 2010 – Death toll: 105

a) The five most deadly countries in the last year

1 = Mexico and Pakistan 14 dead in both

With more than 3,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border town, this year alone, it is no great shock that the ‘war on drugs’ has claimed journalists’ lives in Mexico. The reporting of drugs deals and violence is often accompanied by death threats and in September the newspaper ‘El Diario de Juarez’ published a frank editorial to the gangs titled ‘What do you want from us?’ and agreed to print what the gangs wanted after one of its photographers was shot dead.

More than 3,000 died in violence in Pakistan last year. Militancy, tribal wars, US drone strikes and the Pakistani armed forces’ battles against Taliban insurgents have contributed to the rising deaths. Journalists covering the militancy have been shot as political, religious and international tensions grow.

3. Honduras 9

Since the 2009 coup, which installed Porfirio Lobo as the new premier, politically-motivated murders have been on the rise. In addition, the contagion of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has spread to the country and that has caused further problems for journalists in the field.

4. Iraq 8

US combat operations ceased in Iraq this year but thousands of troops are still in the country training troops and aiding stabilisation policies. The insurgency has claimed 8 journalists’ lives this year alone.

5. The Philippines 6

Religious conflict in the mainly-Muslim south and the ferocious and deadly politics, where ethnicity, party allegiances, family ties and religion meet in a lethal mix, have created an unstable environment in which to report.

b) The deadliest nations in the rest of the world

Africa (14): Nigeria 4, Somalia 3, Angola 2, Uganda 2, Cameroon 1, DRC 1, Rwanda 1

Asia (16): Indonesia 3, Nepal 3, Afghanistan 2, Thailand 2, India 2, Bangladesh 1, Yemen 1, Israel/Gaza 1, Lebanon 1

Europe (11): Russia 5, Belarus 1, Bulgaria 1, Cyprus 1, Greece 1, Ukraine 1, Turkey 1

Latin America (13): Colombia 4, Brazil 4, Venezuela 2, Argentina 1, Ecuador 1, Guatemala 1

Rivers run deep in Central America

The Organisation of American States (OAS) has voted in favour of a resolution ordering Nicaragua to remove its troops from the disputed Calero Island. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been at odds since a confusing dredging incident took place near the island in the San Juan river on 22 October.

The problems began when there were suggestions that the Nicaraguans dumped the sediment they had scooped up on the Costa Rican side of the river. In addition, authorities in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital, claimed that the dredging had affected the nature reserve on Calero Island.

The Costa Rican government maintains that Calero Island was illegally occupied by Nicaraguan forces who set up camp there during the dredging. Officials from Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, simply state that Costa Rica is kicking up a fuss about nothing because the island is their territory.

Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has stood firm. His counterpart in the row, Laura Chinchilla, has said she is ready to talk about the sovereignty issue as long as the troops leave. Ortega is saying nothing apart from stating that he does not believe the OAS is the forum to mediate the issue.

As ever in Latin America, there are shadows in the background behind each party. Venezuela and Bolivia dismissed the resolution but 24 other nations sided with Costa Rica. Nicaragua has had territorial disputes with Costa Rica before and Colombia (over the San Andres and Providencia islands).

Ortega is on the Washington radar, along with those two countries who voted against the resolution. The US likes the idea of Chinchilla ‘soft-socialist’ progressive politics, as opposed to the vociferous socialism advocated by Venezuela and Bolivia.

As we saw last year with the Honduran army’s removal of president Manuel Zelaya, events in these smaller countries of Central America can have larger ramifications across the Americas.

The OAS has now passed two resolutions to no effect. It will not advocate armed action, so as this issue gains significance (and as long as the Nicaraguans stay on Calero), expect those shadows to step forward to take a more prominent role in the debate.