Reporting Fear, Promoting Peace: A role for peace journalism in Mexico
The most dangerous country in the Americas for journalists and among the lowest ranked for freedom of the press, Mexico suffers from both widespread violence and silence. Silence from the journalists and media who are threatened daily and forced into self-censorship. Silence on the part of the judiciary in allowing these crimes and human rights abuses to go on without punishment. And silence from the Mexican government in recognizing the failed policies and institutions in Mexico.
Source: Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
The default storyline of the situation in Mexico usually goes as follows: violent criminal organizations, primarily drug cartels, are running rampant, killing innocent citizens while gaining highly lucrative profits. The response has been to fight a “war on drugs” in order to restore peace and security. However, more than ten years later and roughly 70,000 citizens killed, the outlook for peace and security still seems distant.
The media tends to present these issues in a specific manner that highlights the violence facing Mexico’s citizens. Terms like “unabated violence” and titles of articles such as “Protesters say a massacre took place in this Mexican town”(LA Times August 8, 2016) send a clear message to its readers. While accurately reporting on the violence plaguing Mexico is important, there is a predisposition to focus on the rhetoric of the drug war and the military-police response to the violence. As a result, this type of media coverage does not attempt to offer a solution or deeper context to the problem. In an attempt to confront this dominant discourse, peace journalism has the potential to act as a framework for journalists reporting on conflict to serve as a platform for peaceful initiatives and to offer a more productive outlet for citizens.
A Snapshot of the News: Spring 2013
Let’s go back to spring of 2013. A few months into President Enrique Peña Nieto’s six year term, and amid promises to reduce violent crime, corruption and the power of drug cartels, the media coverage remains consistent with the discourse of violence in Mexico. While the Spring of 2013 directly followed a new administration, with new promises and new policy ideas, the following analysis of selected articles provides a glimpse of the media’s coverage of the conflict, and reveals that the discourse appears largely unchanged with the coverage today.
February 2013: the title of the New York Times article reads “Unabated Violence Poses Challenge to Mexico’s New Anticrime program.” At the start, the title immediately informs the reader that the violence is “unabated” and therefore uncontrollable, even with the establishment of a “new anticrime program.” The first sentence states that the new Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto is promoting a platform based on the reduction of violence and intends to “shift the talk about his nation away from cartels and killings.” However, the following sentence, acts in direct challenge to the President’s attempt to alter the discourse on violence. As the article continues, the author again states that the “shocking violence seems unabated.” All of this contributes to the reader’s sense that there is very little that can be done to prevent or stop the violence. It furthers a feeling of frustration and helplessness and offers little in the way of productive solutions.
March 2013: The BBC reports that a “Mexico Jalisco tourism official” was “shot dead.” The article refers several times to the killing as an “attack” by unknown “gunmen.” The word “attack” also has a connotation relating to war and promotes a sense of fear. The article is shorter than the NY Times and LA Times articles and does not discuss the general violence in Mexico or the context for the potential reasons behind it. The author provides one sentence at the end of the article to contextualize the incident, stating that there have been “more than 3,150 violent deaths in Mexico” since the current President took office in December 2012. Unlike the previous two articles, it does not mention that the new President has instituted a new strategy to attempt to combat the crime and violence.
March 2013: Mexican newspaper El Universal reports on the action by the head of the National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública or the SNSP) Monte Alejandro Rubido. Rubido’s attempted response to the violence includes a program for certification and more in depth examination of the police force. He describes that his goals include a police force which acts in a more “proactive and less reactive” manner with a greater focus on intelligence gathering. The article concludes with Rubido’s explanation that the self-defense armed groups that have started to form in Mexico are by no means a legitimate legal recourse to combat the violence and drug cartels and that the state must maintain its monopoly of “legitimate force.” This article offers the reader a greater description of how the government is responding to the violence. However, as Mexican newspaper, it also has a more vested interest in reassuring its citizens that government action against the drug cartels is being taken. This idea is further emphasized by the sole use of official government sources in the article. In addition, the solutions presented maintain a focus on the official government military-police response.
March 2013: La Jornada, another Mexican newspaper, provides a distinct view from the other articles. Instead of recounting recent incidents of violence and/or the government’s response, the article discusses the building of a “Memorial for the Victims of Violence.”The focus of the article actually centers upon the possible political contention that has prevented the memorial from actually being inaugurated by the president. Despite the contention surrounding the memorial, the article utilizes language that presents a dialogue about the need to honor the victims of violence and the importance of creating a space for the “reflection of constructing a safe and peaceful Mexico.” The discussion about a symbol for peace and security represents an important break from the discourse of violence in the previous articles. While it does not necessarily offer a solution for the violence, it can be seen as a possible step toward incorporating the concepts of peace journalism since it discusses the need for a monument honoring the victims of violence and for reflecting upon the possibility of peace.
A Role for Peace Journalism
As the analysis of selected articles from the spring of 2013 illustrate, there exists a dominant discourse of violence in Mexico. Within this context, peace journalism represents a valuable opportunity to address this gap and shift the dialogue to promoting greater communication and creating an opportunity for conflict resolution. In the book Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution, authors Richard Keeble, John Tulloch, and Florian Zollman introduce the concept of peace journalism and its significance and potential role in society. They explain that the basis of their study is to transform the dominant concept of “war/violence journalism” to “peace/conflict journalism.” Specifically relevant is the idea that peace journalism has the potential to communicate the possibility for “non-violent responses to conflict,” and to “report on what has been done and could be done by the people,” rather than through “victimizing” and “disempowering” the wounded party. The presentation of violence as a random chaotic act by the first articles discussed in this paper can serve to disempower those affected by violence and places them in the role of defenseless onlookers and potential victims. As such, there is a clear occasion for the framework of peace journalism to be applied and to offer a more productive outlet for a society afflicted by violence.
Lynch and McGoldrick further this analysis through comparing the reader response to the same story reported once through “war journalism” and once through “peace journalism.” They observe that the report via war journalism was “liable to lead to a sense of disconnection or ‘switching off,’” versus the response to the same story utilizing the tools of peace journalism which produced a reaction “replete with opportunities to ‘connect’ with the story, even learn something new.” They also explain that war journalism tends to be “orientated toward official sources” which can in turn produce “propaganda” or attempt to “manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour.” Both of these characteristics of war journalism can be readily seen in the articles presented. The majority of the articles greatly utilized, almost exclusively at times, the use of official sources from the Mexican government. Specifically, El Universal relied solely on official government sources in order to communicate the conflict to its population in a specific light and to make it appear that the government is addressing the violence through its police examinations and official projects. Meanwhile, the NY Times and the LA Times’ presentation of the violence as unmanageable, “unabated” and overall chaotic created this “sense of disconnection” that Lynch and McGoldrick refer to since neither article offers the possibility for a peaceful solution to the conflict. They claim that the current government’s anti-crime strategy is ineffective in the face of such rampant crime, but also offer no alternative approach.
As such, peace journalism intends to present a greater “coverage of suggestions and initiatives for peace,” and to promote the possibility for “conflict resolution.” The authors do not claim that the journalist should attempt to create a peaceful settlement themselves, but rather should act as a “platform to the conflicting parties and even interpret events for the audience.” The emphasis here is to create a space for communication within the realm of conflict resolution. Johan Galtung, a prominent scholar of peace journalism and nonviolence, also echoes this argument, stating that “it is important for the news media to stress and promote peace initiatives in their reporting of war.” In addition, media and journalists can readily fill this role through offering a deeper analysis of a violent incident, through providing greater context, and by seeking to present the process over just the event. To this end, Lynch and McGoldrick have led training courses for professionals in this field, including editors and reporters in Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, Israel, Palestine, Georgia and Armenia.
Social Media: A tool to promote peace journalism in Mexico
A costly and significant impediment to peace journalism within Mexico is linked to the directed violence and assassination of journalists by drug cartels. As a result, the media within Mexico have been restricted when reporting on the violence and conflict within the country. The “silencing” of traditional media through violent threats and intimidation has caused citizens to turn to social media in the past several years as a means of coping. The development and use of blogs, Twitter accounts, and Facebook to alert citizens to outbreaks of violence represent important ways in which citizens have filled the roles of silenced journalists and found a way to respond to violence thanks to the immediacy and anonymity provided by these social media sites. Unfortunately, there have also been violent responses by the drug cartels, which have found ways to track these anonymous bloggers, and have violently killed certain bloggers and used others as a warning if their actions continue. In spite of this risk, these sites remain active and citizens continue utilizing them as effective and safe alternatives to the traditional media.
The current use of social media in this arena has been to recount immediate and daily acts of violence. However, the guidelines laid out by peace journalism could be utilized here to take this current use of social media one step further. In addition to alerting citizens to outbreaks of violence, these sites could also be used as forums to discuss potential solutions for the prevention of future violence. This correlates with peace journalism’s emphasis to promote solutions to violent conflict and empower those previously seen as helpless victims. It could also serve as a much-needed space to discuss peaceful solutions and alternatives.
It is encouraging that even with the dangerous risk of being tracked by the drug cartels, these blogs continue to exist and to be regularly utilized by citizens. It may be that these outlets continue to be effective because they empower ordinary citizens to take action and respond to the violence within their country, rather than being left with continued feelings of frustration, helplessness, and fear. As a result, using social media, alternative sources and the tools presented by peace journalism have the potential to inspire the public and journalists inside and outside of Mexico to become more active participants for a peaceful resolution, to defend journalists’ safety and to ensure that their voices are not silenced.
Galtung, Johan and Richard C. Vincent, “When Negotiations Fail: Reporting on a War,” in Global Glasnost: Toward a New World Communication and Information Order? (Creeskill, NJ: Hampton Press 1993), 193-234.
Keeble, Richard Lance, John Tulloch and Florian Zollman. Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution. P. 2
Freedom House, website accessed August 2016:
Committee to Protect Journalists, website accessed August 2016: https://www.cpj.org/killed/americas/mexico/
University of Sydney, website accessed August 2016: http://sydney.edu.au/arts/peace_conflict/research/peace_journalism.shtml
“Memorial de víctimas de la violencia despreciado e el olvido y sin inaugurarse” La Jornada, 19 March 2013.
“Mexico Anti-crime Plan Challenged by Unabated Violence” The New York Times, 19 February 2013.
“Mexico Jalisco Tourism Official Shot Dead” BBC, 10 March 2013.
“Se retrasa certificación policiaca, admite Rubido” El Universal, 20 March 2013.
Blogs and Twitter accessed: