Knight Center
Knight Center


U.S. journalist wins courage award for Mexican coverage

After spending 2009 as a Nieman fellow at Harvard, Mexican-American journalist Alfredo Corchado realized he had no desire to continue putting his life on the line, covering Mexican drug cartels and violence. So when he returned to Mexico as bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, he felt "numb," he said, "separated from the story."

But that all changed Feb. 1, 2010, when he went to cover the deaths of 13 teenagers at a birthday party who had been mistakenly killed by hit men targeting a rival gang.

"I will never forget the day of the funeral, the sight of a dozen hearses on that street, the sight of coffins, the wailing from parents, friends, brothers and sisters," Corchado said. "I’m grateful that it was a rainy day because I felt so angry that I was able to mask my tears with raindrops. And on that sad, gray, rainy morning I broke my silence and found my voice again."

Corchado's story came Sunday night at Colby College in Maine where he accepted the 2010 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award. The award recognizes journalists for their courageousness in fighting for freedom of expression.

Corchado and Belo Television's Angela Kocherga are spending four days at the Maine college discussing issues of news literacy, as part of a program funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The program is organized by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby.

"I stand before you and confess that I am no braver, or more courageous than some of my colleagues in Mexico," Corchado said during his speech, explaining that as a U.S. journalist, he has the luxury of calling his editor to say he no longer feels safe, and then having his editor put him on the first fight out of Mexico. U.S. journalists also have the benefit of solidarity, he said, as "our newspapers, our media companies, our colleagues would stand up and demand answers and justice, that our deaths wouldn’t become just another number. Someone would seek justice...My Mexican colleagues can’t say the same thing."

Corchado's speech came just days after Mexican President Felipe Calderon vowed to better protect journalists and to make killing a journalist a federal crime. The crisis of violence and the press in Mexico came to a head last week when the newspaper El Diario de Juarez on Sunday, Sept. 19, published an editorial seeking a truce with drug traffickers.

"What do you want from us?" the editorial asked, drawing criticism from the Mexican government.

The newspaper published the editorial after its 21-year-old photographer Luis Carlos Santiago was shot and killed. A photography intern also was wounded in the attack. Santiago was the second journalist from the newspaper killed in the past two years.

Corchado dedicated his award to Mexican journalists like Ramon Cantu Deandar, the editor of El Mañana newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, who newsroom was attacked with a grenade, its journalists threatened, kidnapped and killed, and even his brother was kidnapped and released only after Cantu Deandar "agreed not to cover the business, or the crimes committed by drug traffickers anymore, in other words, he agreed to self-censor his publication...It’s the price one pays these days in Mexico if you want to write a story and live to tell about it, though the coverage is limited. He choose self-censorship over total silence."

He also dedicated the award to Marcela Turati, who founded an organization called Periodistas de a Pie, or Journalists on Foot, and opened a shelter in Mexico City for journalists who have been threatened.

Similarly, Corchado thanked Rosental Calmon Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, for bringing together Mexican and U.S. journalists to "build bridges."

"For two days we talked about ways to do our jobs and to stay safe. It was a way to build bridges of trust between us," Corchado said. "Thank you, Rosental. What you started is a truly revolutionary thing here and we’re grateful. Thank you from both sides of the border."

Thanks to a grant from the McCormick Foundation, 13 reporters from Mexico and 13 reporters from the United States gathered March 26-27, 2010, in Austin, Texas, for a special cross-border training program of the Knight Center, aimed at journalists who cover the illegal drug trade. The McCormick Foundation Specialized Reporting Institute: Cross-border Coverage of U.S.-Mexico Drug Trafficking, generated a report that the Knight Center has published as an e-book.

The book, Journalism in Times of Threats, Censorship and Violence, can be downloaded for free in both English and Spanish.

Nearing the end of his speech, Corchado said journalists in Mexico must find a way to balance fear and silence. "We must find a way to tell the story, and not let fear be the deciding factor, don’t allow fear to become the ultimate editor who decides whether or not we pursue a story," he said. "Because otherwise the killing of more than 30,000 people in just four years will be just that, a number. Or worse, that we will be engulfed in silence, as some regions in Mexico already find themselves."

See the complete text of Corchado's speech here.

Or listen to the complete speech.

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