Sandra Larriva Henaine, J'08, Mexico
In New York to receive this year's Maria Moors Cabot Prize, four journalists from Mexico, Argentina and the United States met students of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on Oct. 15 for a "Conversation with the 2008 Cabot Medalists: Covering Societies Under Threat."
Co-hosted by the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, it was the first event of "Scared Silent: Mexico's Journalists Under Attack By Drug Mafias," a Knight Foundation-Cabot Prizes conference held at the Journalism School to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Cabot Prizes, the oldest international journalism prizes in the Americas.
Twenty-one journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2001, making it one of the most dangerous places for journalists, according to a June 2008 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based non-profit organization.
This is the atmosphere in which Cabot 2008 medalist Carmen Aristegui Flores
works. An anchor for CNN en Español and the newspaper Reforma, Aristegui
spoke of two subjects affecting Mexico's freedom of the press and of
expression: "the increasing presence of narcotraffic, hand in hand with a
wave of violence that results in approximately 3,700 executions so far this
year," she said. This data "is not covered by the U.S. press even if both
countries are responsible for the growth of this phenomenon." Nor are the
killings investigated or prosecuted in Mexico, she said.
Another problem is the duopoly of the Mexican broadcast media: Mexico's two
main networks own 94% of the TV frequencies in the country, said Aristegui. "We all know that a democracy does not tolerate such concentration levels."
Aristegui provided a telling example regarding this duopoly. Recently, the Mexican congress approved a reform that outlawed the purchase of TV and radio spots during the duration of election campaigns, eliminating a highly lucrative business for the networks. The networks' response was to erase the head of the senate from the TV programming using digital effects.
Aristegui sees this as a serious danger to Mexico's young and fragile democracy. "Television no longer looks to influence the elections, but to determine them," she said
2008 Cabot medalist Gustavo Sierra, international news editor and war correspondent for the Argentinean newspaper Clarin, decried the closed door that conceals official power in his country.
Until four months ago, when President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner finally bowed to press demands, Argentina had not had a press conference from the president in eight years, Sierra said. At the end of the conference, he recalled, the president said "it was not so bad; probably we'll do again."
Mrs. Kirchner was elected in October 2007, succeeding her husband Nestor. But while she is now the elected president, the power lies in the hands of both, and their relationship with the press is problematic, said Sierra. "No negotiation is the character of the Kirchner government...It is very difficult to find information."
To Sierra, the closed door to press scrutiny has remained "almost the same"
throughout his 30-year career. Problems with the different interest groups,
inside and outside of the networks, turned him away from national news and
in the direction of covering wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other
Michael Smith, an American journalist working for Bloomberg Markets, addressed the exploitation of the poor in Latin America, who often work many hours for very little, despite the outsiders' perception of the region as booming.
"Things are cheap (in the U.S.) because people (in Latin America)are not getting paid enough."
In his coverage, he described a huge marginalized segment of the population with zero or little access to basic services, a "very fragile prosperity" and not the "myth that Wall Street was selling," he said.
Smith wrote pieces on the existence of modern-day slavery in the making of materials for consumer goods in Brazil. He discovered that U.S. pharmaceutical companies were testing unproven new drugs on immigrants housed at a clinic in Miami. The expose of the center's practices forced the company to change its name and relocate.
2008 Cabot medalist Sam Quinones covered Mexican immigration and its relationship with the U.S. for ten years as a freelancer before recently joining the Los Angeles Times as a reporter. "So much about Mexican immigration has to do with our own economy today," he said. While the U.S. provides an escape for Mexico's poor, their growing presence as a working class in this country is leading Americans to become "aristocratic in a sense."
He thinks the current financial crisis may bring sanity to the immigration
issue, where Americans are forced to take over the jobs they once chose to
have immigrants perform. "A lot of what we use immigrants for is to maintain
this fiction of how life should be," he said. In the case of a long-lasting
recession, many Mexican immigrants might go back home, pressuring the
government into improving their quality of life. This, said Quinones, could
be "the healthiest thing for both countries. Maybe our kids start getting