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Voice of America: Mexico’s Female Journalists Winning Small Victories Against Threats

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Enraged. That’s how Adela Navarro Bello felt after hearing that a state official had been casting doubt on her and her journalism.

Zeta, her celebrated investigative news magazine, had just published an article on alleged illicit business dealings by high-level officials in Mexico’s Baja California state.

A journalist asked Amador Rodriguez Lozano, the state’s then secretary-general of government, about the allegations surrounding members of his administration at a town hall meeting. But instead of addressing them, he sought to discredit Navarro and her publication.

“Zeta is angry: first, because we are not buying advertising, and second, because we are investigating Adela Navarro’s romantic partner,” Rodriguez said at a meeting in December 2019. “I think that is the reason why Adela makes up stories.”

Navarro was shocked.

“I was upset, of course,” she told VOA. “They were trying to divert the attention from the corruption taking place in that government. They attacked me and Zeta. They attacked my private life.”

Angered, Navarro filed a complaint with the Baja California Human Rights Commission.

Each of Mexico’s 31 states and its capital, Mexico City, has a commission. The government body investigates complaints against state authorities, ensures that officials comply with the constitutional mandate on human rights, and recommends reforms to policies and laws.

The commission cannot take direct action, but it can recommend prosecution.

With media across Mexico coming under continued verbal assault from government officials — including President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who, during his media briefings, holds a weekly session on reporters and their work called “Who’s Who in the Lies of the Week” — the commission can be a step toward mediation.

The press office for the office of the president did not respond to VOA’s request for comment sent via messaging app.

In speeches, Lopez Obrador has said he supports “true” journalists but not those who he claims make millions by working for opponents of his government.

In a country regularly cited as one of the most dangerous for journalists, hostile rhetoric such as the president’s and online attacks are not to be taken lightly.

Nationwide, threats directed at the media are increasing. In the first six months of 2022, London-based rights and free expression group Article 19 recorded 331 attacks, including physical aggression and online violence, in Mexico. Of those, the state was said to be responsible in 128 cases, the rights group found.

And when it comes to the digital sphere, threats are more commonly directed at female journalists, studies by Article 19 and other groups have shown.

“We see many acts of intimidation, threats, smear campaigns that also have a particularly strong impact on women journalists, because [women] also have a very, very strong social burden,” said Itzia Miravete Veraza, a Mexico City-based lawyer who works for Article 19.

Women in Mexico already have less equal footing in society, and the online attacks against them are often sexualized or focused on a journalist’s appearance and work to further undermine their public role, Miravete said.

Still, despite Mexico’s machismo culture, women such as Navarro are proving themselves as newsroom leaders even as others try to diminish their work.

Still, women such as Navarro are proving themselves as newsroom leaders even as others try to diminish their work.

Credibility under attack

As the director of a weekly news magazine, Navarro has a tight schedule and is direct in conversation. Her pride in Zeta and its journalists is clear.

Its Tijuana newsroom proudly displays Navarro’s and her colleagues’ work and achievements.

Framed front pages showcase their biggest investigations — including one of Zeta’s early reports into organized crime and drug trafficking in the 1980s. Next to it, a Maria Moors Cabot medal that had been awarded to the magazine’s founder, Jesus Blancornelas, in 1998.

Navarro received the same award in 2021.

“For her courage, and her contributions to understanding the complexities of the U.S.- Mexico border,” the prize board said.

In a video interview with VOA from Zeta’s offices, a portrait of Blancornelas loomed over Navarro as she discussed Mexico’s media environment.

“They want to kill your credibility and morale to end your career, and for your readers to lose trust in the news magazine. That is what they are trying to accomplish with these defamation campaigns,” she said.

The then secretary-general’s words had stung, Navarro told VOA. A direct attack on her career in investigative journalism that earned her the position of director at Zeta.

In her complaint to Baja California’s human rights commission, Navarro said that Rodriguez “attacked Zeta” over its reporting.

As a prominent outlet tackling organized crime and corruption, Zeta has weathered decades of attacks and threats. Assailants killed two of its team, in 1988 and 2008, and an ambush on Blancornelas in 1997 left his driver dead and the journalist injured.

Such attacks have earned Mexico a reputation as a dangerous country for media, a notorious claim to fame that endures today. This year, as of October 25, at least 15 journalists have been killed, according to multiple sources.

In many cases, threats precede the slayings.

Article 19’s Miravete said her organization was seeing an increase in aggression directed at media, especially women.

Still, female journalists continue to report on corruption, politics and issues affecting women. Many are driven by the belief that their reporting can effect positive change.

As a child, Isabel Mercado dreamed of becoming a journalist, much to the despair of her family.

“My family tried to discourage me, saying that this career had no good income. Nobody gets rich by being a good journalist,” said Mercado, originally from the coastal city of Los Mochis, in northern Sinaloa state.

Seated at her desk in the El Sol de Tijuana newsroom, Mercado recalled her early ambitions. She is glad she pursued her dream, she said, even when she faces a barrage of online hate.

In October 2021, Mercado received a call from a group of women in the Tijuana firefighter force.

“They hesitated before calling, and later admitted researching my profile and stories before contacting me,” she said.

The firefighters felt more comfortable talking to her, she said. They wanted to discuss problems in the workplace.

“These are women who for many years suffered from mistreatment. Male firefighters were being verbally aggressive and even recording them in uncomfortable situations and sharing the videos,” she said.

“Some of them had dared to talk to their managers and had no support. Before publishing the story, I talked to the chief, and he acknowledged those kinds of irregularities, but he tried to minimize them.”

After the story had been published, it attracted hundreds of negative comments on the news outlet’s website and on social media, many directed at the female firefighters and Mercado.

But for all the negative responses, Mercado’s story made a difference.

Montserrat Caballero, who took office in October 2021 as Tijuana’s first female mayor, read the article and ordered change.

The city dismissed the fire chief and made changes to its structural organization. And a woman was appointed as head of gender equality.

A victory, at least for now.

The women are glad the story brought about changes, but they are unsure they will last, Mercado said. “They are worried that once everyone forgets about it, things will go back to how they were.”

Community

Attempts to discredit or delegitimize reporting, especially by female journalists, is a global phenomenon.

In a 2020 survey by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists, 73% of female-identifying journalists said they experienced online violence.

In response to such attacks, a sense of solidarity has developed among female journalists, who are creating networks and spaces to connect, said Denisse Martinez Bucio, spokesperson for Chicas Poderosa, or “Powerful Girls.”

“Women are mainly looking for a community to be part of,” she said.

Groups like Martinez Bucio’s provide training and security advice and promote reporting on gender-based stories.

“We invite them to create journalism or audiovisual stories, to talk mainly about health, economy and gender violence,” she said.

Sometimes though, the official institutions work.

After Navarro submitted her complaint to the human rights commission, Rodriguez issued a public apology: “This comment could be misrepresented and seem like a sexist attack,” he said in a video posted to Facebook.

The commission’s president, Miguel Angel Mora, said that although the case is resolved, the complaint stays on file.

“Even though no further action is needed when there is a formal apology, we kept the claim open to do a follow up and leave an antecedent of what these reporters had to go through,” Mora said.

Another small victory.

Vicente Calderon contributed to this article. It originated in VOA’s Spanish-language Division.

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