Knight Center
Knight Center


In the wake of the Sean Penn controversy, journalists explain why they turned down interview with El Chapo

Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with drug cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán generated sufficient controversy in the United States and Mexico about ethics, the law and journalism.

Questions were raised about the prior approval of Penn's article demanded by Guzmán, security and access afforded to Penn by the cartel, context surrounding the drug war in Mexico, and more.

In the week since the article was published, at least two professional journalists have said they previously rejected interviews with Guzmán over these same concerns.

Gerardo Reyes, director of the investigative unit at the U.S.-based Spanish-language television network Univision, wrote in The Washington Post that Guzmán twice expressed interest in an interview with the outlet, most recently after his July 2015 escape from prison.

Guzmán first accepted the network’s on-camera interview request, via a confidential source, in 2013, but requested that he approve the story before it aired.

“In Miami, we discussed Guzmán’s offer and quickly came to the conclusion that we could not subject our work to revisions by the subject of our reporting,” Reyes said.

The journalist said that a month after Guzmán escaped from the Altiplano prison in July 2015, a source said the drug lord again was interested in an interview, “But he wanted to record the encounter on cameras he would provide.” Again, the network declined.

“The moment I heard about Penn’s interview, I felt as if I had lost a long and grueling obstacle race. But still, I never regretted rejecting Guzmán’s conditions because I knew the capo would omit so much, especially his role in Mexico’s violent drug wars,” Reyes wrote.

In the case of the Rolling Stone article, Guzmán also demanded prior approval. In that case, it was granted.

At the beginning of Penn’s story, there is a disclosure: “an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.”

For many journalists, this fact has generated the most controversy and discussion about ethics and professional practice.

Alfredo Corchado, Mexico City bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, said the following to The Washington Post: “When you’re not really challenging the person and have agreed to submit the story for approval, it sounds more like a Hollywood entertainment…It’s not on par with the sacrifice of many of my colleagues in Mexico and throughout the world who have lost their lives fighting censorship.”

In an interview with CBS’ Charlie Rose, which aired on Jan. 17, Penn said of the agreement for prior approval: “And if he said no, then that was no harm no foul to any reader.” Rose asked, “It would never be printed?” Penn responded, “It would never be printed.”

Nevertheless, journalists like Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director Joel Simon have defended Penn's freedom of expression, and others have said the article reveals interesting information about Guzmán.

"For all its journalistic shortcomings — the fact that Penn gave Guzmán final approval over the story, his shallow questions and self-indulgent writing style — the story is an important document in the history of Mexico's drug war," said Mexican journalist Javier Garza Ramos.

Garza and other journalists compared Penn’s experience to those of Mexican journalists who live and work to cover the drug war on a daily basis.

Garza, an ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow who oversees a project mapping attacks on journalists in Mexico, explained that Penn was protected by people who “made it dangerous for every other journalist to cover El Chapo’s hideouts.”

Explaining that she has “had many opportunities to interview the big bosses,” Mexican investigative journalist Lydia Cacho told Joel Simon. “I’ve declined, not because I doubt such interviews are journalistically pertinent, but because they have killed many colleagues, because they have thrown bombs in newspapers in which I publish. I know first hand the suffering that their cruelty has caused in my country and an interview of this nature implies a tactical agreement with mafiosos that my ethics prevent me from accepting.” Due to her reporting, much of it on human rights abuses, Cacho has received multiple death threats and has been kidnapped.

Editors and reporters in newsrooms across Mexico consider these dangers when making decisions on how to cover the drug war.

In a recent interview for “On the Media,” journalist Raymundo Riva Palacio told host Bob Garfield why he declined an offer to interview Guzmán in 2008 while working as managing editor at one of Mexico’s most important newspapers, El Universal.

“First of all, I said immediately, we didn’t know if that was a trap. The security of the reporter, we cannot guarantee. Because this reporter was a really good reporter who in the past had already been threatened by drug traffickers, drug bosses,” said Riva Palacio, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, who is now the editor of Eje Central, a Mexico City based news portal. 

The opportunity to interview "El Chapo" came at a time when drug cartels were engaged in serious conflicts, Riva Palacio explained. As an editor, he did not want the reporter to be caught in those battles.

He said the following when asked about ethical concerns and the risk of being used for powerful people's purposes:

“Basically, if they want to talk to us it’s because they want to send a message. If they offer an interview, we will be implicitly accepting their terms. And why do we have to accept their terms? For the sake of the argument, let’s say that the reporter goes there and makes the interview. Will she ask the right questions? Then the problem is, is El Chapo going to be comfortable with those questions or are we going to have problems already with this interview? We didn’t know that. Let’s say also, the sake of the argument, that he answered the questions. Well, after that, we will publish the story. What happens if he doesn’t like the story? We’re going to have some problems. But let’s say that he likes the story. There will be rivals of him that will be unhappy with the story and the way they mechanically think is that we side with the other cartels so why are we going to get into troubles with any of the cartels? So that’s another risk.”

When asked if a Mexican journalist could have interviewed El Chapo or another cartel boss and been safe in Mexico, he pointedly said no: “If the interview were a free interview, no way.”

Speaking about the Penn interview, Riva Palacio said he had not asked more important questions and was used as a mouthpiece for El Chapo. He mentioned that the most striking part of the interview, Guzmán's alleged recognition of his status as a drug trafficker, was disputed by Guzmán's lawyer.

"We are not really talking about journalism, we are talking about entertainment. That was the Rolling Stone piece, just purely entertainment."


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