During my time as a journalist - they were the best years of my life - I learned the importance of highlighting the pressures that the profession has to confront, and to be clear about the identity of those who try to prevent it from functioning.
First - pressure from the government
One of the main enemies of free expression and of its correlative, freedom of the press, is the pressure exerted by government through its various agencies.
Here is an example from the early 20th century in my country - Mexico.
After Porfirio Díaz had governed for more than thirty years, Francisco I Madero unseated him in an election. At last, after such a long time in charge, Díaz left the country in a ship call Ipiranga.
Shortly afterwards, the “Porfirista” army, which had remained intact under its commander, Victoriano Huerta, staged an uprising, toppled President Madero and threw him together with vice president, José María Pino Suárez, into Lecumberri prison, where both were subsequently assassinated.
Madero’s widow asked to see her husband’s body. After first refusing permission, the authorities seemingly relented, telling her to appear on the following afternoon at one o’clock.
In the streets of Mexico City, news vendors began selling a newspaper with the announcement that President Madero’s widow had committed suicide beside the body of her husband.
Meanwhile, she was packing her suitcase in preparation for leaving the country.
What had happened? Friends and family had advised her not to go to the appointment because she might be murdered. After much pleading, they had managed to convince her and, as a result, she didn’t show up.
News of her suicide had been put out by the junta to cover up the crime it was planning; and the newspaper took the story at face value and printed it. Neither that newspaper nor any of the others troubled themselves with a subsequent correction.
Shortly afterwards, during a session of the Senate, Senator Belisario Dominguez denounced the manipulation of information about crimes committed by the junta, and the complicit silence of the media. General Victoriano Huerta, who had led the military coup, gave an order for Dominguez’s arrest. As an exemplary punishment, they cut out Dominguez’s tongue before murdering him; after which Huerta dissolved the Senate and imprisoned forty legislators.
Life is full of surprises. Decades later, I got to know Oscar Urrutia, a Mexican architect, who happened to be the son of the doctor whom Huerta had ordered to cut out Dominguez’s tongue. Urrutia had always been tormented by his father’s act, knowledge of which pursued him like a dark shadow and from which he felt unable to escape. In an effort to shut the crime out of his life, he eventually went into exile in Spain.
Planet Earth goes on revolving. In 1954, the Institutionalised Revolutionary Party - the PRI - now in government, introduced the Belisario Dominguez Medal which is awarded to those who have played an exemplary role in furthering democracy and freedom of expression. Quite an irony. It’s hard for anyone to know who they might end up working for. What would Dominguez’s tongue have to say if it had known that it was to become an instrument in the hands of a regime dedicated to hiding the truth?
This pernicious practice has remained a constant throughout the history of my country and, of course, it continues today.
Just a few months ago, Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui, who has an enormous following, was summarily dismissed on a purely bureaucratic pretext by the television company for which she worked. The real reason for her ejection? Government pressure on the television company in the wake of a report by Carmen on a spectacular mansion gifted to Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico, by a construction company which - among other government concessions - had won a licence to operate a network of high speed trains.
Another difficulty - pressure from the Church.
A couple of years ago, congressional Legislators in two of the states of Mexico passed laws permitting abortion. In great indignation, the assembled bishops of God the Father and Son from both states warned their flock and the legislators that if they failed to revoke those laws, they would be excommunicated and would burn in the fires of hell.
Disarmed by these holy warnings and sacred fears, the secular State gave in. The legislators returned to Congress and - Heavens above! - disowned their original approval of abortion just in time to prevent the first flames of hell from licking at their feet.
A Mexican newspaper, La Jornada, and also Carmen Aristegui herself, began to look into complaints against Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legions of Christ - a religious institution blessed by Pope Pius XII and that later received a Decree of Praise from Pope Paul VI. Maciel was accused both in Mexico and Spain of paedophilia with pupils in his institutions, whom he misled with nonsense about needing samples of semen for medical testing. Faced with increasing pressure, Maciel approached the faithful business leaders who protected and financed his multi-million-dollar ventures and asked them to withdraw their advertising from La Jornada. They complied. Subsequently, in response to widespread public protest, the Vatican removed Maciel from his priestly functions and secluded him in Rome.
Pressure from business
We need to understand that when business executives speak of freedom of expression, they mean freedom of enterprise. For them, the only true freedom of expression is the kind that defends their business interests and accompanying ideology. Nor should we ever lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of newspapers - never mind television - are owned by proprietors, not by journalists. From the outset, the media are therefore compromised or “co-opted”. Proprietors use media to serve their personal interests, which is why they own them in the first place.
By way of illustration, I’ll recount one of the most appalling instances ever to have come to my notice.
Once more we are in Mexico. At nine o’clock one morning in 1999, Paco Stanley, a well-known radio and television personality who worked for Chanel 13, a lovable chatterbox, given to tearful recitations of his own dreadful poems to an adoring public, was gunned down in front of the Charco de la Ranas Restaurant, where he had just breakfasted, by a hitman standing on the pedestrian bridge over the Periférico (ring road).
As the subsequent investigation confirmed, this was a settling of accounts. A drug trafficker and dealer had ordered the murder of a consumer who had failed to pay his debts. The defaulter was, of course, Stanley, our broadcaster- poet.
Chanel 13 nevertheless gave out its own version. While the corpse was still warm, it began to broadcast accusations that Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas was responsible for the crime. Cárdenas was Governor of the Federal District at the time, a figure of the left whom Chanel 13 had been attacking and whom they were bent on discrediting and removing from the political landscape. What better victim of the treacherous left-wing mayor could there be than an innocent, highly popular broadcaster who had been odiously assassinated.
From the very moment of the crime until deep into the night, the owner of Channel 13 appeared before the cameras to accuse Cárdenas of responsibility for the murder. And during those hours Channel 13 had an 80% rating, a level that no other television network had ever achieved.
The defamatory campaign reached a huge audience, but the television company that had invested large sums in it was never fined or required to justify its behaviour.
Organised crime and its links to political power constitute a major problem.
Initially, the activities of drug traffickers and gangs in Mexico were centered on the country’s borders. Any journalist who reported on the problem would be found dead on the following day.
The issue reached the centre of the country in 1984 when journalist Manuel Buendía was shot in the back five times in a Mexico City street. Later, his assassin himself was murdered, not this time with five bullets. He was stabbed 120 times.
On the previous day, Buendía had told José Antonio Zorrilla, Chief of the political police, that he was about to publish a list of well-known figures associated with the drug trade. Zorrilla was the only person who knew.
According to the subsequent investigation, Buendía’s murder was a joint operation between the police and the traffickers. Zorrilla ended up in jail as the intellectual author of the crime.
Now, thirty years later, organised crime has set up camp in every region of the country, often with the support of the local authorities.
We have all heard of the terrifying case of the forty-three students who disappeared recently in the State of Guerrero. They were last seen taking part in a student street protest that the local mayor had ordered to be dispersed and the participants to be arrested.
The mayor who gave this order fled, was subsequently arrested, and is now accused of direct involvement with the drug trade.
As the innumerable smoke screens have been drawn open, it has become clear that the forty-three youngsters were detained by the authorities and then handed over to an organised crime squad which proceeded to murder them and dispose of the bodies.
There remains a great deal of obscurity and disinformation about these deaths which have occasioned widespread protests. This is perhaps the most painful demonstration of what organised crime is capable when it operates in partnership with the authorities. And, needless to say, vice versa.
Every individual journalist has to take account on a daily basis of the dangers that he or she may be running, and of the flattery and enticements with which they must refuse to be bought. Serious, honest journalism is a high risk profession, like that of a miner lowered into the depths of a mine shaft.
I don’t want to miss the opportunity of mentioning one of the people I most admire - Judge Giovanni Falcone from Sicily, the man who for the first time succeeded in seriously undermining the Italian mafia. On one occasion he was interviewed by a French journalist who asked him to explain a major contradiction. You are a great trailblazer in the fight against corruption, she said, and yet as a judge you work for the Italian State which is one of the most corrupt in the world. Falcone thought for a moment. Look, he replied, I work for the State because we all need a shelter behind which to arm ourselves for the struggle. For the time being, my task is to investigate and incarcerate the mafia, but I am heading towards the intersection of the mafia with the State. When I reach that point, the State will dispose of me.
His words were fulfilled on 23 May 1992, the date of his assassination. But his life will be remembered as an example of the commitment and determination of an honourable man against the scourge of organised crime and State crime.
Where can we find freedom of expression?
In a world in which democracy has become a mirage, or a form of self-deceit, I venture to ask where we can really find true freedom of expression. Does it exist, or is it merely a desideratum? Or maybe just a whimsy. Because when we try to defend it, what, exactly, are we defending?
I wonder constantly about its real scope, and whether in seeking and defending it as an inalienable right, we do not end up by trivialising it and emptying it of content - just like those who wield it in order to defame, to hide the truth, to enrich themselves, or to justify an abuse of power. Not to mention the great abusers of civil rights who have recently led demonstrations in favour of free speech.
I admit to having no precise answers to this dilemma. Also my memory is beginning to fail. Bear in mind that I retired from journalism some eighteen long years ago.
Nevertheless, my deepest convictions remain intact: the profound lessons learned during the exercise of my profession. I would like to mention those that, in my view, are and will continue to be fundamental.
I believe that, as a guide and protective shield, the media should adhere to a strict ethical code of journalistic conduct, applicable to every task, and widely known and shared both by journalists and readers. Such a code would be the only way of ensuring that the basic norms are being met.
1) The right of free expression should not be emptied of meaning by being used to defame, lie, insult or denigrate.
2) Freedom of expression becomes a mere parody wherever other human rights are abused.
3) Remember that a newspaper is a collective enterprise.
4) Be on the side of the victims, the offended, the humiliated, the poor of this earth and the defenseless.
5) The journalist should be present wherever there is violence, for the information he provides can put barbarism on the retreat.
6) The journalist should not be against but always independent of government, ready to confront it and to be a critical voice.
7) A key premise: Be careful with the word “true”! Because the truth is suspect. Perhaps we would do better to use the word “objectivity”; although that is also a slippery and pretentious term. We must assume that all texts, headings, photographs, and caricatures have a subjective bias. Though we should also acknowledge that the subjective can also be honest.
8) One thing seems to me very clear amid all the uncertainties, and for me it is a moral certainty:
I know that freedom of expression lives in whoever fights for it, inch by inch, little by little, even sometimes in great leaps, tirelessly, without fear, and endeavouring to avoid the danger zones.
I know that freedom of expression belongs to the worker, just like the land of which Zapata dreamed.
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(*) This article is an excerpt of the acknowledgement speech by Carlos Payán upon receiving the Casa América Catalunya Prize for the Freedom of Expression in Latin America on June 3, 2015.