The prevailing violence against the press in Mexico in 2008 has mobilized journalists to organize and seek ways to combat self-censorship and to restore press freedom in the country.
To delve into the issue of freedom of expression and to learn about initiatives that emerged last year in defense of the Mexican press, the International Journalists' Network (IJNet) recently interviewed journalist Benjamin Fernandez (pictured at right), a communications law expert, social activist, and Knight International Journalism Fellow.
Fernandez was an adviser to Fundación para la Libertad de Expresión, a project created on October 16, 2008 to ensure the safety of journalists, as well as their freedom of expression and right to information. His consulting work included the review of the Foundation's statutes and the design of its development plan, now in effect.
Fernandez is currently involved in a number of consulting jobs and conferences. He also works as a social activist, promoting freedom of expression in Mexico.
What does promoting press freedom in Mexico involve?
As a Knight Fellow, I helped faciliate the creation and launch of Fundación para la Libertad de Expresión in Mexico, a foundation that brings together a variety of Mexican citizens in the fields of communication, culture, academia, politics, and business interested in making free speech a pillar of democracy in the country. My first task has been to emphasize the idea that freedom of expression is a value that concerns not only journalists, but should be viewed as a collective commitment of every Mexican, so that any threat is perceived as an affront to society as a whole.
What are the resources being used to promote press freedom?
We have turned to radio programs, television interviews, books (Libertad de Expresión: Revisión metodológica de las agresiones a periodistas en México, Perla Gómez Gallardo and Autorregulación Periodística, Benjamín Fernández Bogado and other authors), a monthly magazine, workshops for journalists, international conferences, an endowed professorship, and the Web site.
Another point is social activism. For example, with Fundación para la Libertad de Expresión, we were in the Zócalo [Mexico City] on December 7, 2008, promoting freedom of expression during Human Rights Week. We reached a series of agreements with civil society organizations, journalists and universities to carry out specific tasks in this field. I have been giving lectures and leading workshops in Mexico City, Villahermosa (Tabasco), Cuernavaca, Guadalajara and Puebla.
What points were covered during the Human Rights Week panel discussion on violence against Mexican journalists?
Some structural points: a high level of corruption among the police; a justice system that is unable to investigate and punish perpetrators; and high inequality. Less than 1 percent of criminals receive punishment. The citizen's fear, and a public campaign to reinstate the death penalty in Mexico. Low wages for journalists, which force them to depend on extra income that may often involve conflicts of interests; and high dependence on state advertising, especially in the provincial media.
How did the audience respond?
[They were] keen and critical at the same time; they expect the media to demonstrate a greater level of commitment and solidarity and that the Mexican State will make an actual commitment to end the violence that in 2008 took the lives of more than 6,000 people [not only journalists].
Are you seeing any progress in this matter?
Little progress. The feeling of being at "war against crime" is an indication to many that there will be more victims, including journalists. Civic campaigns in the media seek to raise awareness of the 29 crimes against journalists in the past two years of Calderón's government and to dismiss the idea that only 3 percent of them have been killed for exercising their profession.
What kind of assistance or training does the foundation offer to journalists and the media?
On one hand, we seek to strengthen journalism as a profession and to make better use of the access of information laws that are available. On the other hand, we want to provide the legal elements to better understand the precarious and dangerous environment in Mexico.
Could you tell us about your achievements and future goals?
We have strengthened the foundation and are seeking to amend the Education Act to include freedom of expression as a chapter of study in the primary and secondary education curricula. But, above all, I have personally put a strong emphasis on engaging the whole Mexican society in the task of raising awareness about the social value of freedom of expression.
What advice would you give to journalists who face violence every day?
To never lose the courage to reflect reality; that fear must not immobilize the country; and to relate the facts --even in a climate of war that always distorts the truth-- is a fundamental task of journalism worldwide.
For more information on Fundación para la Libertad de Expresión or to report a threat (in Spanish), visit http://www.fundacionparalalibertaddeexpresion.org/. To learn more about the Knight International Journalism Fellowships, visit http://knight.icfj.org/.