Since the beginning of the Mexican war against drug-trafficking, she has been reporting on human rights violations and more specifically on the people disappearing in Mexico, a phenomenon that has seen more than 37000 persons missing across the country.
Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. According to the IFJ’s latest statistics, 5 journalists have already been killed since the beginning of the year.
We met Marcela in Brussels last week as she received belgian universities VUB and ULB’s honorary title for freedom of expression ahead of World Press Freedom Day on 3rd May.
You just received this prestigious award from VUB and ULB, what does it mean to you?
It is important. But this prize is not for me, it is for Mexican journalists who are still asking for justice for other colleagues who have been killed. It is for those who are trying to find ways to carry on their duties with more protection and less risk.
Tell us about your work as a journalist
I mainly work on victims of violence but I also write articles for media abroad and I write for instance about Mexican journalists who are in exile. I am currently working on a piece on the necessity that journalists get emotional and psychological care because there are many aspects of the coverage of disappeared people that is impacting us terribly. For example, the impact of covering the search for mass graves, the fact of going every week with families whose relatives have disappeared, watch them find the bodies, skeleton, pieces of bodies…This has a huge impact on journalists. I am worried about the emotional effects of the coverage of these issues.
There are about 20 groups of families around the country who are excavating graves. They go to the camps where people are hidden or get information about clandestine cemeteries and visit them.
You walk with them, the kidnapers are there watching you. Sometimes it is horrific because of what you see…I have learnt about genetic tests, forensic things, calcinated bodies, multi fragmented bodies, bodies dissolved. Sometimes the parents say: this is the remains of my kid and it is just a piece of bone.
First I wondered how I would process this but then you normalise it. Now I am fully aware of the psychological effects.
What are the effects of covering such terrible stories?
Many years ago we invited the DART center (NDLR: a project that supports journalists covering traumatic events) and organised the first workshop to explore what was happening. We found that journalists were very depressed, drinking too much and were exhausted by their daily coverage. They were incapable of measuring the risks they were taking anymore. Those who had children felt guilty that they might get killed together with their children.
Some colleagues also felt guilty to write about some families because the latter could get killed as a consequence of what the journalists would reveal.
It feels like we are touching a high voltage cable. You have to convince people to testify but you also have to tell them to take care of themselves. Tell them about the risks they are facing by talking to you. These kind of things are very heavy to bear .
I have some friends whose sources have been killed. I have seen colleagues feeling extremely bad about what happened with the life of the people they interviewed.
How do you support journalists?
I do it individually and we have also created collective groups. This is another interesting thing about Mexico. In different states journalists get together to cover human rights. They prepare themselves to respond to emergencies. If one journalist gets threatened, the group contacts international organisations and prepares reports. They also provide training and we also do a lot of collaborative jobs. We work together with human rights defenders. We also publish joint stories.
There is a kind of journalism brotherhood or sisterhood. Women make up the majority of these groups. There are anthropologists, psychologists , journalists. There is a sense that you have to take care of others. We, women, organise ourselves to protect other people.
My biggest discovery has been the power of women in these groups.
You talk about collective work, standing together, supporting each other: This is what unions are supposed to do. Don’t you think there is a role for unions to play in supporting journalists in Mexico when they face the situations you described?
Yes. We have the aspiration to have a union to defend our rights. But in Mexico, with the ruling party and corruption at stake, we don’t trust unions. But we have been talking about creating something like a union or something to supervise our rights. Media are firing hundreds of journalists because the new president says he will reduce the money paid to publicity.
Don’t you think media managers and newsrooms also have a role to play in organising training and supporting their staff covering dangerous stories?
Media owners are not aware. It seems that they haven’t noticed the risk their staff is facing. In many newsrooms journalists are offered no preparation. In risky places, media haven’t adopted any policy or security at the door. Journalists don’t have social security. Sometimes media don’t even cover their costs to go to some places.
It is difficult to intervene in a company because journalists think if they denounce the situation they will not find a job anymore.
Sometimes you take part in a good training on digital security, you learn how to encrypt your messages when in a dangerous place. But your boss doesn’t know how to read them. Or he proposes to talk on the phone or by skype while we know it is not the most secured way!
Sometimes the reporter decides not to sign his article but the newspaper has added his or her email “for more information” at the bottom of the story! Sometimes they put photograph credits on the picture while the photographer wants to remain anonymous.
These things happen because we are not working together with the company. The majority of us are freelancers. Sometimes we cannot check how they will publish something.
What drives you to continue covering mass graves searches?
I am convinced that we, as journalists, are in a “commission of truth in real time”. In the future, if we get a real justice system our articles will provide answers to the families. We have to document this situation and protect each other. We need to do it for many more years. When you meet parents who are really sad and broken inside who share what they are going through, you think it is part of your job to work with them, document, investigate and bring some cases to justice.
Have you been threatened for doing your job?
Sometimes I receive messages.
Once one of my relatives got a call saying that they will kidnap me. I was investigating the murder of Gregorio Jiménes who was killed in 2014. He was kidnapped in front of his family. We started a campaign asking to release him and the campaign got a lot of echo in latin American newsrooms.
After my relative received the call I left the country for 3 weeks. I wasn’t still sure if that investigation was the problem as I was working on several issues.
The previous government has set up a mechanism to protect journalists. How does it work?
The government gives money to threatened journalists to live in Mexico City. They hold a panic button and ten people receive a phone call as soon as they press it. Sadly, some journalists who have used that mechanism have been killed. So their bodyguard was killed.
The government is not attacking the problem from the root, which is to investigate crimes against journalists. Sometimes someone is caught and authorities say he is the killer of a journalist but they never find the masterminds behind this crime.
It‘s very cheap to kill a journalist. Nobody pays for these crimes so it is an invitation for others who want to silence journalists to do the same.
The mechanism to protect journalists is not sustainable. It just brings people that were the best journalists in their regions to Mexico City. But then, they have nothing to do, no job, nobody hires them. And the region becomes silent because you don’t have specialised reporters on the ground anymore.
What can be done to make the government accountable and fight against impunity both at national and international level?
We have done many things: protests, symbolic gestures, work with United Nations, the inter-American Commission on Human Rights and international NGOs and it seems nothing happens and there is no political cost for the government. The only time something happen was when Javier Valdez was killed 2 years ago. For the first time the president (NDLR: Pena Nieto) said he would investigate the crime. Two years later, nothing happened. There is someone in jail but they still haven’t discovered the mastermind.
One thing we could do is create a unit of investigation for displaced journalists to continue their job.
Internationally we need countries to put pressure on the Mexican government and also on international commercial trade by inserting some human rights obligations including the need for a better justice system.
The problem is that we have a president who criticizes the press almost every day on national TV. Every morning he holds a press conference. Each time he is asked a question that makes him angry he says that the press is the enemy. He is very popular so the people thinks it is normal to talk like that about the media. We get attacked on social media when we publish something. When the conference finishes a new kind of youtubers publish the photo and email address of the journalists that have asked annoying questions. Women journalists are particularly attacked, including on their appearance.
Tell us about Periodistas de a pie…
We created this network in 2006 with another woman colleague to cover poverty. We felt that poverty had no space in the media. We got together, we prepared ourselves better. Later when the war (ndlr: against drug) started, we changed our training plans and we asked the UN for help and to send Colombian journalists to train us. Every week we had lots of people denouncing disappearances. Then we also thought we have to protect ourselves, know how to get into dangerous places because we never covered any crime before. So we exchanged information on different topics. We started marching, protesting.
Now I have left. One journalist who asked for help was killed. Many people started asking for help. Many people knew me and called me. I got a call from a woman journalist with kids who was afraid to be killed. A photographer from my magazine said he was being followed. We tried to help him. He was killed.
How about Quinto element lab?
It is a project we created to help journalists in the region to do investigation. We want to bring local news to national news. We created a web site about emblematic cases of disappearance.
The IFJ is lobbying for an international convention to fight against impunity to hold government responsible for the crimes. What do you think of this?
It is good. It is the answer. If nothing is done there is an invitation to kill or censor more journalists. Fighting impunity is top of the list.