All photos: Monica Gonzalez
With the generous support of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, the Rory Peck Trust, Chiapas Paralelo, and the Autonomous University of Chiapas, the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers organized this round of security training in the Mexico — Guatemala border, including reporters from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, and ensure that this training effectively reached out women journalists and freelancers from those borders.
The three – day workshop took place in early January 2018 at the Autonomous University of Chiapas’s campus in Tuxtla, Gutiérrez, and trained journalists from three countries who live in borderlands or work on trans-border topics. We featured the investigative reporting workshop by John Dinges, a legendary U.S. correspondent who covered the Pinochet’s military coup in Chile, the U.S. invasion in Panama to oust dictator Manuel Noriega, and other conflicts in Latin America. Daniela Guazo, an awarded reporter trained the participants in data journalism, and Jorge Luis Sierra, provided training in cybersecurity.
Participants received specialized and holistic training in the areas of physical, digital, legal, data and investigative security. In an evaluation, participants said they were exposed to new ideas, practices and tools and had the opportunity to meet new colleagues, make professional contacts, and created collaborative and supportive networks.
Why a workshop at this border?
Human trafficking, drug illicit trade, international emigration of unaccompanied children from Central America to the USA, as well as gang violence and corruption are every day topics for reporters working along the borders in Mexico and Central America. The fact that, in many times, those reporters don’t have neither the tools nor the skills to do such investigations in a safe manner, put them at the risk of suffering serious attacks from corrupt officials, criminal organizations and private companies.
Recently, independent journalists trying to investigate corruption and human rights abuses in those areas have been severely punished by unidentified and violent gangs.
Cerigua, an independent organization that defends freedom of expression, reported that violence against journalists has spiked recently with 9 journalists killed in 2016, three of them in Quetzaltenago, a department in South West Guatemala, just one hour driving away from the border with Mexico.
The situation is also similarly critical in Honduras, considered a not-free country in the Freedom of the Press report by Freedom House. According to this organization, “the environment for media freedom in Honduras has grown worse since the 2009 coup, with increasing violence and threats against journalists.”
Journalists working in Chiapas, a Southeastern state at the Mexico – Guatemala border have also suffered death threats, defamations campaigns and attempts of extortion. In the experience of the author of the original proposal, most reporters working in Guatemala border departments are “empiric” journalists, reporters who don’t hold any university degree, work as a freelancers for media organizations based in Guatemala City and face major threats from Mexican criminal organizations operating in their departments.
Under the condition these reporters work, we considered critical to train those journalists in building a risk reduction strategy, adopting security protocols and planning their journalistic investigations with the highest professionalism possible. With this workshop, we helped those journalists to develop a new culture of security and professionalism. They were trained to adopt good practices and security protocols, protect data and communications as well as to use the best methods to verify information, build sensitive sources and pursue investigative stories.
Under these challenging conditions, security training for journalists, bloggers and citizen reporters is crucial to ensure the dissemination of quality news and the exercise of freedom of expression.
Thirty eight participants, including 31 reporters, three trainers, and four people to provide logistical support attended the workshop. All participants conducted a risk assessment by using the web application Salama to obtain a risk score. The risk score was discussed in the workshop and participants were able to identify potential threats to their security according to particular conditions in their own regions.
For most of the participants, it was the first time they did a risk assessment, evaluate their own strengths and vulnerabilities, and grabbed the importance to plan ahead and mitigate risk. An interesting discussion aroused about “risk normalization” that happens when journalists consider threats as a “normal” condition and subsequently underestimate risks associated to those threats.
Participants also discussed what to do to evade surveillance, manage risk when covering public unrest and repressive measures against protesters.
The security discussion also included the best way to reduce liability and legal risks: story planning, full verification of all information, and accuracy during the writing process.
Participants received a digital security toolbox with applications, methods, and practices to protect their data and communication of sensitive information. They learned how to build a passphrase with the Diceware method and how to encrypt information.
They received intensive training in two specialized crafts: how to use the excel program and how to conduct an investigation of sensitive stories such as corruption, abuse of power, or human rights violation.
Participants also exchanged information about the current security situation in every city, municipality, state or department from the countries of origin.
For organizers, there are some takeaways:
The importance of local training. Journalists really appreciate these trainings because there are very few opportunities to receive security training locally, in despite of the fact that this borderlands region is affected by the activities of criminal organizations, associated by corrupt police officers and government officials. As a critical example of this trend, one week after the workshop, one of the reporters supported by RPT bursaries got a death threat because he was investigating irregularities in the arrest of a person and the robbery of several thousand dollars in a local address. Two week after the training, the reporter informed a WhatsApp group that two colleagues of them had been assassinated, with clear evidences of torture.
Collaboration increases awareness. As it was evident in the Chiapas workshop, some journalists tend to “normalize” violence in their work and lives, mostly because they see it and cover it every day. Exchange of opinions and collaboration among colleagues who live and work in other localities, cities and countries in the region, can help the group to end such normalization. Open discussion creates more awareness and helps those reporters with a better understanding of the risks associated to practicing journalism in borderlands regions that are usually isolated from country capitals and are affected for pervasive criminal groups.
Professionalization improves security. The inclusion of data journalism and investigative reporting into the curriculum of this security workshop helped participants to develop their critical thinking and professional skills. These skills are critical at the moment of evaluating the initial hypothesis and planning contact with sources, methods of verification and story bullet-proofing. The top takeaway is that equipped with better professional skills, a reporter may reduce chances of lawsuits and other challenges to freedom of expression.
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