Knight Center
Knight Center

JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Documentary shows poor working conditions for journalists in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico



When you think about the situation of journalists in Mexico, the first image that comes is one of violence. And for good reason. The country is considered the most dangerous in the American continent to practice this profession. In 2017 alone, at least 11 journalists have been recorded as killed for reasons related to their work.

However, in places like Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua, a journalist's vulnerability sometimes comes from the journalistic companies themselves and from colleagues who leave journalists to a kind of abandonment by not offering good salaries, minimum benefits of social security or support when they are directly targeted by violence.

This situation, which is well-known, but of which many prefer not to speak, is the topic of the documentary  ‘Entre batallas y derrotas’ (Between battles and defeats), created and directed by Gustavo Cabullo Madrid, who has his Master’s degree in transborder journalism from the University of Texas at El Paso and is a television producer for the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez (UACJ for its acronym in Spanish).

"We [the journalists] played that double standard," Cabullo said in a conversation with the Knight Center. "Denounce what happens outside, but we do not denounce what happens to us, inside, in our companies."

The documentary shows the battle that, parallel to their coverage of the femicides and the drug war, journalists face to "dignify their office, guarantee their physical, social security, salary, benefits, justice for fallen comrades and, not least, freedom of expression."

Knight Center: The documentary notes that this situation of journalists in Juárez is an "open secret." What led you to decide to talk about the topic and show it in a documentary?

Gustavo Cabullo Madrid, director and producer of the documentary “Entre batallas y derrotas” (Courtesy photo)

Gustavo Cabullo: In Mexico they have been killing journalists, March was a very dark month with six murders, among them we were also touched here in Chihuahua with that of Miroslava Breach. Then I got the idea of ​​interviewing Blanca Martínez who is the widow of one of the journalists who was killed here in Ciudad Juárez in 2008, a very emblematic case here on the border. I wanted to interview her to find out what happened in legal terms nine years after the crime. And she starts to talk about the way she was treated in the company where her husband worked. It revealed to me so many things that I said this can not be a single interview, this has to go further. It is what I can bring from my platform as a journalist to shake [the companies] and tell them 'hey, he was your employee, he did the job for you, support the family after he is killed or after a journalist dies.’ I tried to talk to the owners of the media outlet, but there are many barriers that prevent you from reaching them. One is unfortunately the same fellow journalists who hold managerial positions in the companies.

KC: How can you summarize the problem of journalists' working conditions?

GC: I think it's a cancer that's affecting every business. Since they learned what outsourcing was, since the ghost companies were invented, they began to take more of the benefits. There will be those who give them, which are the most important newspapers here in Ciudad Juárez. But now they are hiring trainees to remove the benefits, social security, salaries are very low, they do not give you a vehicle, they do not give you gas, you work with your own equipment, your cell phone, with your computer, you don’t have anything more than a space where you get to work. There is no life insurance, there are no major medical expenses, in a city as violent as Juárez, journalists do not have medical insurance for major expenses like what happened to the colleague who was hit by a bomb. The government had to pay the man, but not the company. The material he recorded, and that I showed in the documentary, is very important, it is the evidence of what you have to do, how far you can go as a journalist to give your life to your company, and that the company turns its back on you because it doesn’t give you benefits. It’s incredible.

KC: How do you get colleagues to report this situation that would also endanger them?

GC: The colleagues are eager to talk, eager to tell what is happening inside the companies. Whether they are working or no longer working there. Then I said, we are going to give voice to the journalists so that the people of Ciudad Juárez know what is happening and that at the international level they know how in Ciudad Juárez, a border so stigmatized by the war against drug trafficking, those who bring you the news also suffer, those who write, those who tell what is happening. We are going to give voice to those who are also victims of what happens in Ciudad Juárez by the same newspaper companies.

KC: Since the release of the documentary on Aug. 14, have there been any consequences for those who decided to speak?

GC: A person has already been pressured to resign. The business owner knew that they participated, gathered them all in the boardroom, projected the documentary and everyone noted it. This person did not back down, explained why they had participated in the documentary and they told them if they had a bit of dignity they would resign. Then they resigned two days later. Paradoxically, the owner of the company promised, after having seen the documentary, that they would change the working conditions within the company. We have to wait and see if this happens.

KC: Have you been affected in any way since publishing the documentary?

GC: We had to be very cautious in getting the material out. We waited for something to happen, but thank God so far there has been no threat. My colleagues have taken a very corporate stance, especially those who take care of the companies. They have assumed a corporate role, I have not heard anything, they do not answer my messages. 

KC: What could be the impact of the documentary, what could happen in the long or medium term?

GC: Having done the documentary is like opening a small slit of a big window so that people will realize what is happening. I think it can be a great contribution if they help us in other countries to share it, so that the Government will get all this information. But the trend here in Mexico is independent journalism, get your own site, because companies will not change. The media outlets have juicy contracts with governments, and as long as this continues, the journalist is going to leave the media outlets because there will be no investigative journalism, because your freedom of expression is being restricted, because the same government itself has ties to the media outlets by way of these juicy contracts.

KC: But doesn’t it make them more vulnerable not to have support of a company?

GC: I think the journalist is smart enough to know how to protect himself and his sources. But Ciudad Juárez is a minefield for journalism, which is why the border became a place for tourist journalism some time ago because they came from different parts of the world to do this work. But the Juárez border deserves to be told. Yes it is very dangerous because of what happened to Miroslava [Breach] who was reporting cases of micro-trafficking in the Sierra. Maybe it makes you more vulnerable, but we return to the same, do we really have that support from the company? They're going to get you on the street, they're going to kill you and the company is going to hang a blanket outside saying you were a hero because you did good journalism, but the family, what's going to happen to them?

We are all vulnerable at least here in Mexico, because of the lack of benefits, the lack of interest of the media towards their employees, the lack of commitment to their employees. Miroslava's case was very vulnerable. The case of Armando Rodríguez was very vulnerable. Writing independent journalism, I am going to be very vulnerable like them, don’t you think?

KC: So, what should be done to improve the situation?

GC: Leave the egos, gather journalists and demand our rights. As we play that double standard of denouncing what happens outside, but we do not denounce what happens to us, inside our companies. We have to unite, there is a terrible disunion, that struggle of egos that I wish were not part of the work, because the companies already don’t allow us to investigate in journalism. It is a very silly battle of egos that has stopped us from uniting and demanding our labor rights.

The documentary is available here in Spanish. Cabullo said that they are working to have a version with English subtitles by next November.



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