Mexican journalists mount online defiance
To be a journalist in Mexico today is to be faced with a constant dilemma—to publish or not. Publishing stories that expose the actions of drug cartels can bring death. Unmasking the truth about corrupt politicians can be equally risky. The fear of retribution means journalists in Mexico self-censor their material.
In the wake of this reality, non-traditional efforts – Mexicans using blogs, Twitter hashtags, and Facebook groups to disseminate information – have sought to fill the journalism gap. #ReynosaFollow and Blog del Narco are among the examples that have come and gone, often under threat from drug cartels, and questioned by would-be audiences unsure of their authenticity.
Now, there’s another innovation in Mexican journalism: two independent, online news outlets, Animal Politico and Sin Embargo, that are run by experienced journalists who are not afraid to criticize the government – or to run their bylines.
Animal Politico had its origins as @pajaropolitico, a Twitter account established in 2009 by business journalist Daniel Eliemberg. A year later, Eilemberg– who had edited several magazines in Mexico – established Animal Politico as a news website.
According to The Paley Center for Media, Animal Politico draws 3 million to 3.5 million viewers a month, and it has over 1 million Twitter followers.
Animal Politico is headquartered in Mexico City, with a staff of 20, five of them reporters — including Michael Ureste, 28, former editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Veracruz.
The site covers drug cartels, but “We focus more on corruption, human rights and immigration,” said Ureste, who covers immigration.
At the paper in Veracruz, Ureste said, he routinely received threatening phone calls from members of the notorious Zeta drug cartel. He said the group demanded that Ureste not publish the name of the cartel or any information linking its members to crime scenes. Since cartels in Mexico have shown few qualms about attacking or even killing journalists, Ureste had little choice but to comply.
After two years, Ureste left the editor’s job; he says he was not willing to ask his reporters to cover cartel-controlled areas.
“I could no longer put my life in danger, or anyone else’s,” Ureste said in a Skype interview from Mexico City.
Animal Political’s location in the Mexican capital gives it greater security, Ureste said.
Ela Stapley, founder of an application called Hancel that tracks the location of journalists, said the capital tends to be more secure, with a heavy presence of law enforcement from the federal and state government.
Both Animal Politico and Sin Embargo, the other popular news site that is breaking new journalistic ground in Mexico, post bylines on all of their stories.
At Sin Embargo, co-founder Alejandro Paez says he is happy to be free of the government pressures that stifled his work at, El Universal, Mexico’s largest newspaper. Paez was a subeditor at El Universal. He said the paper’s news coverage was heavily influenced by the government, since it was the biggest investor. The government’s financial leverage meant that the paper self-censored stories that might be critical of government officials, Paez said.
In 2011 Paez and four colleagues left the paper and formed Sin Embargo, located in Mexico City. “It’s the only way I could report,” said Paez.
The site’s motto, “rigorous journalism,” means that it will pursue investigative stories about government corruption; no organization or official is off limits, said Paez.
“NARCONOMICS : Cartels are spreading like McDonalds and Wal-mart,” read the headline on one investigation of how cartels are expanding – just as fast as food and retail chains, according to Sin Embargo. Another story, headlined “ Evasion, Silence and Rhetoric are the Rhetoric of War,” explored how Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and former president Felipe Calderon dance around the topic of war.
Sin Embargo refuses to accept investments from the government. “ We don’t want to be a part of the game,” said Paez. But he acknowledged that he’s not sure the company can survive financially. Sin Embargo is financed from each of the founders’ personal funds, as well as donations from universities and the public.
Since its founding five years ago, Sin Embargo has been subject to a tax audit each year, and its founders have also been audited on their personal holdings. Paez said he believes the audits are in retaliation for the site’s coverage of government corruption, but he said it won’t stop Sin Embargo.
“The only way to get back at the government is by investigating them,” he said.
Publishing on the Internet does not make a news site invincible. Journalists are still targets, and both Paez and Ureste said they receive calls from government officials when a piece that criticizes the government is published.
“ We get a bunch of calls from the government threatening to cut us off from other advertisers,” Paez said. “They even run advertisement campaigns against us.”