Navigating newsgathering in the deadliest country for journalists
Marcela Turati is behind the website ¿A dónde van los desaparecidos?, a project tracking stories of disappeared people in her home country. She's also the co-founder of nonprofit Quinto Elemento, an initiative to train the next generation of Mexican investigative journalists. Editor Alejandra Xanic discussed the project with our contributor Laura Oliver for this piece we published back in July 2021.
Watch the video of Marcela’s talk
Read an automated transcript.
Why this topic matters
- The number of journalists killed this year in Latin America is staggering, with estimates ranging from thirty to forty-two. As Gretel Kahn explained in this piece, this makes 2022 the deadliest year on record for Latin America, and Latin America the deadliest region for journalists worldwide.
- At least eleven journalists were killed in Mexico in 2022, making it the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, surpassing active war zones such as Ukraine and Syria. The aggressive rhetoric of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador doesn’t help: since he’s in office, trust in news has gone down 12 points. | Check out Mexico’s country page in our Digital News Report 2022
- Most of the journalists killed in Mexico are local reporters doing other jobs to make ends meet. This article by our Journalist Fellow Zoe Ramushu features a project launched by Alejandra Ibarra to preserve the legacy of murdered reporters by remembering their work, and not their deaths.
Nine takeaways from Marcela’s talk
1. On the killing of journalists in Mexico. Violence against journalists intensified in Mexico in 2006, when the federal government declared war against the drug cartels. “We’ve been living more than 15 years with this kind of violence,” Marcela said.
The situation is especially difficult for journalists who live in small towns. “Everybody knows who the journalist is in those places,” Marcela said. “So even if they are not behind a news story, the drug cartels and the police think they are. Many have been killed in their newsrooms or in their houses in front of their family. We have a protocol now to protect journalists. You can call the government and say you are at risk. You can even get a bodyguard. But you can be killed even with a bodyguard. It’s really difficult to protect people at risk.”
2. On how to protect yourself. Turati stressed that some of her colleagues get so used to living under pressure that they fail to see any warning signs when threats become more dangerous. “Journalists don’t know which one of these threats will be the one killing them,” said Marcela, who mentioned the cases of investigative journalists Javier Valdez and Miroslava Breach, both murdered in 2017.
“You have to be in contact with your fear,” Marcela said. “You don't have to block it because your fear can save your life. So it's important to be in contact with your fear and with your colleagues, who can sometimes see what you are not seeing because you are always under this kind of stress.”
3. On a President harassing the press. Mexicans elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador as President in 2018. Since being elected, López Obrador has targeted journalists and treated them as part of the opposition. As a result, trust in news has fallen and high-profile reporters have suffered violence online and offline.
“The President portrays the press as the enemy of the people,” Marcela said. “Every morning he runs a daily press conference in which he speaks his mind about many topics. Every Wednesday he runs a section in which he presents journalists as liars. There’s also a new kind of journalist who appears in these conferences: one who’s there not to ask questions but to praise the President and present him as a hero. These press conferences have had an impact.”
4. On the threats she’s faced. Turati has often been targeted for doing her job. In 2021 she discovered she was on a list of journalists spied with the Pegasus software. A few months later, it was revealed that the Mexican government had investigated her for her work covering the victims of violence in a country where the number of people listed as disappeared now exceeds 100,000. “Threats often come from the authorities. Not only from organised crime. Sometimes authorities have been corrupted and work together with the cartels,” she said.
“Covering victims takes a huge emotional toll,” Marcela said. “Spending time with the parents or with the children looking for mass graves and going to the morgue with them is also really dangerous because the government wants to hide this. For example, we learnt that the government had identified a few mass graves without telling the families of the disappeared. Then the authorities said that I had violated the secrecy laws.”
5. On why she and her colleagues founded Quinto Elemento. Turati and a few colleagues founded Quinto Elemento in 2017. Their goal was helping colleagues who had stopped doing investigations for lack of money and threats. They tried to reverse this trend by giving these journalists support on different fronts: help with FOIA requests, database expertise, help through the editing process. They also put them in touch with global news organisations so their work could be published in other countries.
“We have created the first map of mass graves in Mexico and the first register to identify the bodies of people still in morgues, “she said. “We are always thinking of the things we can do that may be important for the relatives of these missing people. We try to think about which kind of information they need.”
6. On how to interview victims, witnesses and survivors. In March 2021 Turati wrote a piece with 15 tips for journalists when interviewing victims of tragedy and their families.
“Imagine this man you are interviewing is your uncle. Imagine this girl is your niece,” she said at our seminar. “Put yourself in their shoes. Be as careful as you would be with your family. You also have to think whether your interview is dangerous for them. And if it is dangerous for them, don't publish. Look for other ways to learn the truth.”
7. On impunity. Most of the crimes against journalists in Mexico go unpunished. “Not many people protest against this,” Turati said. “Media owners sometimes don’t even go to the funerals of their journalists when they are killed. We need to be more vocal. We need to explain to society that killing journalists is a really bad sign because journalists give you the information you need to survive. They fight against corruption and silencing them is silencing your own community.
8. On mental health. Turati explained how she experienced a moment of burnout a few years ago. She couldn’t even read news stories or interview people. “I was really blocked,” she said. “Sometimes we require therapy. We need to acknowledge that. It’s something that it’s compulsory for the journalists we train when doing the most difficult investigations. Journalists need spaces where they can talk about how they are feeling.”
Telling survivors’ stories is a real challenge. “You are always feeling bad and you are always wondering whether you are putting someone at risk,” Turati said. “You often feel paralyzed. You blame yourself and think you’ve done something wrong. And you need to work with these emotions, forgive yourself and continue being a journalist.”
9. On why collaborating is key. In a place where so many journalists work under pressure, sharing your challenges with colleagues and finding ways to work with them is one of the things that Turati finds most useful.
“This is not a time to work alone,” she said. “This is a time to work together. You have to create networks. You have to invest many hours of your life organising a community of journalists around you. You have to learn how to protect your colleagues and learn to do it well. And you need to explain to the community why it is important that you do this.”
Turati argued that journalists should work together when reporting on difficult stories. “This is something we do very often,” she said. “We publish the same information in many news organisations at the same time. Sometimes we even give the information to foreign correspondents because it’s important that they publish it. Then it’s published by the New York Times. It might be your information but this is a way to protect yourself.”
The bottom line
Mexican journalists are creating support networks to protect each other, strengthen their investigations and promote their work. Crimes against journalists often go unpunished, with local reporters suffering the most. Reporting on the disappeared and their families is a moral imperative in a country where the number of people listed as disappeared now exceeds 100,000. Despite the threats from the drug cartels and the authorities, Marcela Turati and her colleagues are reporting extensively on these issues.