As newspapers continue their steady financial decline and the press is criticized for everything from false news reports to jeopardizing national security, those of us who live in the comfort of a democracy may start to say, Who needs them? There are plenty of blogs to fill the gap, and as tech-savvy critical thinkers trained to question everything we read, do we really need formal journalism to tell us what is going on? The press-defenders insist that investigative journalism goes hand-in-hand with democracy, that without newspapers in some form our government will lose accountability. Mexico has become an interesting example in this regard.
Exactly a year ago I traveled to a U.S.-Mexico border town to gauge the human rights impact of foreign investment there. I spoke to various business representatives, people working for nonprofit organizations, government officials, etc. about a variety of topics, including the security situation. The universal response was that security was not a problem. Sure, it was an issue in some border towns, especially Ciudad Juarez (across from El Paso). But not in little Reynosa, where the population had boomed from 280,000 in 1990 to 520,000 in 2005. Maybe a few isolated shootings, they said, but no worry if you weren’t involved in the drug trade.
I also spoke to a Texan journalist who frequently crossed the border for reporting. He did not seem particularly concerned about safety either. However, he did say that journalists tended to self-censor with regard to reporting on gangs. If that were the case, how were the business and government representatives so sure that Reynosa was a safe environment? How did anyone who was not directly involved really know what was going on?
In February Reynosa was dragged into Mexico’s drug war full force, with weeks of gang violence spilling over into civilian lives. One of the defining features of this development has been its impact on the local media. Journalists were singled out, with several abductions and murders taking place in Reynosa. Clearly an objective of the gangs was to ensure that their activities were not monitored. Nor has the violence ended: just this Tuesday more shootouts occurred.
There have been accusations that corrupt police are protecting the drug traffickers. Yet these are no more than rumors as long as the journalists uncovering them cannot dig deep and publish what they find. The media fill a crucial role in accountability when the authorities – whether due to their own involvement or, as is likely the case in Reynosa, their own incapacity – leave a gap. Allowing journalists to be cowed into silence is as great a blow to accountability as opaque government records or siphoning off oil revenues.