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Media agree to guidelines for covering organised crime

Media representatives stand in front of a panel reading
Media representatives stand in front of a panel reading "34,612 deaths" during a meeting in Mexico City on 24 March to discuss guidelines for covering violence. The number signifies those who have been killed in drug-related violence since the government stepped up its offensive against cartels in 2006

Reuters

Just moments before two journalists were found dead in the drug-riddled city of Monterrey last week, nearly 50 leading Mexican news organisations agreed on a code for covering drug-related violence and organised crime, report the Centro Nacional de Comunicación Social (CENCOS) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The voluntary, self-policed Agreement for News Coverage of Violence, signed by 46 media groups - which between them own over 700 television networks, radio stations and newspapers - is the first of its kind in Mexico.

It seeks to prevent the press from glorifying drug traffickers - i.e., making their leaders look like "victims or heroes" - or publishing cartel propaganda.

The agreement also states that criminal violence should be covered in a measured way, putting it in the context of violence elsewhere.

Signatories also promised joint action to protect journalists, at least 20 of whom have been killed since 2006. Among the measures recommended to journalists are not to use bylines on articles about organised crime or report live from the most violent areas, and to cover the issues jointly with other media.

The accord also defends the media's right to criticise Mexican government policy and actions in the drug conflict.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which was invited to sign the agreement, declined. "First, as an organisation dedicated to freedom of expression, it seemed to us a problem to support a text saying what should or should not be published," said Benoît Hervieu of RSF.

The agreement does not ask for real commitment from the authorities to investigate attacks on and murders of journalists, says RSF, an opinion echoed by the Centro de Periodismo y Etica Publica (CEPET). Nor does it acknowledge that officials are sometimes complicit in the attacks, the groups say.

RSF was also concerned with the article that reads, "When the government takes action within the limits of the law, it should be made clear that the violence is caused by the criminal groups."

"Military and police operations are legal but they don't prevent acts of repression by the authorities on the media and journalists - and in particular community media, which remain criminalised even when they have a licence," said Hervieu.

CENCOS reports that some journalists have labelled the agreement a federal government strategy supported by the "television duopoly" of Televisa and TV Azteca to try to unify information on the drug war. According to local news reports, the agreement was borne out of a request by President Felipe Calderón for media owners to be part of the government's war on drugs.

CENCOS has opened up its web pages to the debate, even publishing an editorial from "El Diario de Juárez" explaining why the paper, whose "reality is not the same as other Mexican cities," could not agree to a standardised way of reporting. Read it here. Some leading newspapers - including "Reforma", "La Jornada" and "Proceso" - did not sign, either.

Others argued that the agreement raised important questions, regardless of pitfalls. Carlos Lauría of CPJ told AP that if the agreement generated debate, that was a positive thing.

"We couldn't have a worse situation than the one we have today," Lauría said, referring to the threats, violence and attacks by drug gangs that have led some newspapers in northern Mexico to stop publishing articles on drug gang turf battles.

CPJ points to the huge accomplishment of having news organisations at all levels come together to offer a concerted response, calling it "a national breakthrough that could set professional standards well into the future."

How effective the agreement will be at battling the violence remains to be seen. "Organised crime cartels are so powerful in many parts of the country that they will likely be able to block some of the most important elements of the accord with the same intimidation they use to control much of the press already," said CPJ.

Putting a crime in context is "exactly the information organised crime cartels don't want the public to know… It is very difficult to believe signing the agreement will bring that context. The results will simply be too deadly," said CPJ.

The agreement was adopted just hours before a photographer and a TV host were found assassinated in the northern city of Monterrey on 25 March, report CPJ and RSF.

Luis Emanuel Ruiz Carrillo, a photographer with Monclova-based news daily "La Prensa", was abducted and killed, along with José Luis Cerda Meléndez, a Televisa-Monterrey entertainment show host, and Cerda's cousin, Juan Gómez Meléndez. A graffiti message referencing a major drug cartel was found on a wall near Cerda's body. "Stop cooperating with the Zetas," it said.

Ruiz had travelled to Monterrey for a piece on Cerda, a onetime drug addict and street thug who had become a popular TV personality, reports CPJ.

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