Is Mexico's drug violence scaring off the next generation of journalists?

Drug violence has made Mexico a dangerous place to be a reporter, and it is affecting journalism schools that now struggle to keep their doors open and train aspiring journalists.

Grenades have exploded in newspaper offices. Reporters have been kidnapped and murdered, sometimes dismembered and stuffed into garbage bags. Several journalists have fled Mexico for their safety.

It’s not exactly a selling atmosphere for Mexican journalists, especially those in school who could opt to study business or technology instead of a craft that has become one of the most dangerous in the world when practiced in Mexico.

Journalism in Mexico was once under threat by the political dynasty that controlled the country during the 20th century, and the job has scant prestige or pay, but today it is bloodthirsty drug traffickers and corrupt officials that are the menace. And now journalism schools are battling to keep the “fourth estate” alive, while students reconsider the fashion or sports beat in lieu of hard news, and others forgo the journalism profession altogether.

Some schools have even closed down their programs because not enough students are enrolling.

“To recuperate a sense of journalism of quality and ethics is harder and harder each day,” says Maricarmen Fernández Chapou, who teaches journalism at the Tecnologico de Monterrey Mexico City campus and directed the program until last year.

'The biggest battle'

Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism in the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts 69 journalists or media workers killed since 1992 – some were clearly targeted due to their profession, but in other cases the motive was unclear, but it is possible they were killed for their journalism work. Mexico's human rights commission's numbers are even higher: As of July they recorded 81 journalists killed since 2000. The death toll has mounted since 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office and drug-related homicide began to skyrocket.  

Amid the violence, reporters, many of them woefully underpaid and unsupported by their news organizations, began to leave bylines off of their stories. Then, many began not to cover the news at all. Mexico dropped in 2011 press rankings from “partly free” to “not free,” according to Freedom House.

“The biggest battle we are fighting is self-censorship,” says Ricardo Gonzalez, who heads the Mexico chapter of Article 19, a freedom of expression organization.

'You put your life in danger'

The journalism landscape has clouded the outlook of budding journalists. In Ms. Fernandez’s class on a recent day, most of the dozen-some students are studying communications, and those opting for journalism aspire to cover sports and culture. Only Gael Castillo raises his hand when the class is asked who wants a hard news beat.

Mr. Castillo displays the ideals that all professors dream of. On a scholarship at the elite private school, and in his second year, Castillo chose journalism to battle the inequalities and injustices he sees around him daily in his city Nezahualcóyotl, on the outskirts of Mexico City.

When rumors spread last month that drug traffickers had rolled into town, he opened an anonymous Twitter account to warn residents where they should and shouldn’t go, changing the IP address often so no one would identify where he was.

But once he graduates, Castillo hopes to steer clear of the crime beat. “You put your life in danger and then sometimes you have to leave the country,” he says. “I don’t want to have to do that. The worst would be to put my family’s life in danger.”

Redoubling efforts

Journalism was tightly controlled in Mexico through much of the 20th century, as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) maintained its grip on society for 71 years. But with pioneering media companies and journalism schools, as well as Mexico’s 2000 transition to democracy, journalism has professionalized in ways that some worry is now being undone.

But it is not just threats from organized crime that makes students question journalism today. The media’s reputation has suffered since July presidential elections, when a student movement called #YoSoy132 protested what it called the unfair, favorable coverage of president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI. Corruption has also put some journalists on outside payrolls, at times the suspected reason they are victims of murder.

But violence has had the most direct impact on the trade, and many blame the government for not doing enough to protect the media in today’s climate.

Mr. Gonzalez, from the freedom of expression organization, often travels to journalism schools across Mexico, most recently in Coahuila, and he says that schools are not doing enough to impart lessons to students about staying safe, especially in regions most gripped by organized crime. One school’s program just shut its doors in Laredo, across the border from Texas, he says. At the University of Morelia in Michoacan, the rector told Reuters that the journalism program was shut down for this academic cycle because there weren’t enough students.

Claudia García Rubio, a professor at the Tecnologico de Monterrey, says she feels like she is facing a daily contradiction: trying to instill the ideals of investigation without limit, while urging students to do so with caution and intelligence.  Already one of her students scored an interview with the wife of a drug trafficker, but she had to urge the student, she says, not to publish a piece about the daily lives of drug traffickers because its publication could have put the student's life in danger.

On a recent day, Ms. García’s students, all in their last year of school, analyzed a map of press freedoms, where the line for Mexico plummets over the course of the past five years. But, she says, the decline in press freedom in some ways has motivated both teachers and students to demand more of themselves and the profession.

“Instead of throwing the towel in,” she says, looking at her class knowingly, “we have to redouble our efforts.”

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