“The War on Drugs is a War on Press Freedom”
Journalists Speak from the Front Lines
By Dan Malakoff
Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar
February 15, 2003
As the third day of the “Out from the Shadows” drug legalization conference drew to a close, a panel met to discuss one of the most important aspects of the war on drugs: the media.
From left to right, Luis Gómez, Renato Rovai, Gary Webb,
Carola Mittrany, Blanca Eekhout, Annie Harrison, and Al Giordano
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Al Giordano, facilitator of the panel and publisher of Narco News, an online newspaper that covers the drug war from Latin America, opened by saying, “As journalists, we’re under threat right now, and just as anyone has to defend themselves from threats, so do journalists. True press freedom is not possible under a system of drug prohibition.”
As the conversation evolved between the six panelists, speaking to an audience of about 50, the picture that emerged was of a threat far greater than that posed only by the drug war. The threat of governments and a commercial press emerged as tyrannical in dimension.
Brazilian reporter and film documenter, Carola Mittrany, was the first panelist to speak. She spoke to the inaccessibility of U.S. Embassy officials while co-producing a documentary dealing with the travails of coca growers in Bolivia. Her point: When a government controls the information, fairness in reporting becomes difficult. Her film, “El Tiempo de una Protesta” (“The Time of Protest”), aired before the panel got underway.
Brazilian Renato Rovai, editor of Forum magazine, stood out in his bright red “100% Lula” T-shirt. He picked up where Mittrany left off. “In Brazil,” he began, “there is not such a thing as a reporter just in the line of drugs. What there are are reporters who specialize in the use and sale of drugs in the low-income areas.”
Renato hit on a theme that echoed throughout: news coverage that characterizes the poor as drug users while ignoring drug use and trafficking among the upper-class.
The next speaker, freelancer Annie Harrison, spoke to her work covering U.S. government operations against California’s medical marijuana community. She assailed the mainstream press for poor coverage of the drug war. Stories of people like Ed Rosenthal, who grew medicinal cannabis at the behest of the Oakland City government only to wind up in jail, were not sensational enough on their own to attract reporters, she asserted.
Harrison pointed out that commercial news outlets routinely perform drug tests on journalists applying for work with the perverse effect that “the people who have the most experience with drugs are considered unfit to work in journalism.” She added, “I have refused to take the drug tests and it has shaped my career.”
The fourth panelist, Gary Webb, has a background that illustrates the courage of journalists who tackle the controversial. In 1996, the Pulitzer-winning journalist published a series of articles that linked the CIA with drug trafficking in South Central, Los Angeles. Pressure built on his editors at the San Jose Mercury Press as much of the mainstream press and the government attacked Webb. His editors retracted Webb’s assertions and Webb resigned. After the panel, he said that the convergence of “crack, black neighborhoods, and the government” was too hot for the commercial press to handle.
When it came to Luis Gómez, the Narco News Andean Bureau Chief, the conversation changed to how reporters can combat censorship. His advice was simple: Don’t necessarily believe the newspapers or certainly not governments. “You have to go to where the news is happening and interview witnesses,” he said.
Blanca Eekhout, the sixth and final panelist, hails from Venezuela’s community media. As she told the audience of the three days last April that brought down and then returned Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez to power, the audience was moved to applause. The story of commercial media in Venezuela is that of an elite, profit-driven enterprise, threatened by Chavez’s reforms in both Venezuela’s media and economic system. After all, Chavez legitimized the community media, its competitor. “Those who give out information to the rest of the world already have this coup d’etat position in their mind.” “The interests of the commercial media are different than the people in the poor neighborhoods,” she said.
Eekhout, a producer for the community station Catia TV, described the detention and torture of State- and community-press journalists during those three days and how the crisis moved the populace to grab the reigns of communication. “The essential thing was that every man and woman knew they were a communicator. Everyone knew it was his or her duty.”
While Giordano concluded the panel, in the opinion of this writer, a consensus had emerged that the real threat to press freedom was not from drug prohibition per se but from governments and commercial media. The solution, Giordano asserted—for anti-prohibitionists and journalists alike—was to put “timidity” and the “inclination for approval” aside in order to create their own media. “Don’t be a victim,” he said. “Hit back.”
Full Disclosure: The author wishes to acknowledge the material assistance, encouragement, and guidance, of The Narco News Bulletin, The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, publisher Al Giordano and the rest of the faculty, and of the Tides Foundation. Narco News is a co-sponsor and funder of the international drug legalization summit, “OUT FROM THE SHADOWS: Ending Prohibition in the 21st Century,” in Mérida, Yucatán, and is wholly responsible for the School of Authentic Journalism whose philosophy and methodology were employed in the creation of this report. The writing, the opinions expressed, and the conclusions reached, if any, are solely those of the author.
Apertura total: El autor desea reconocer la asistencia material, el ánimo y la guía de The Narco News Bulletin, La Escuela de Narco News de Periodismo Auténtico, su Director General Al Giordano y el resto del profesorado, y de la Fundación Tides. Narco News es copatrocinador y financiador del encuentro internacional sobre legalización de las drogas “Saliendo de las sombras: terminando con la prohibición a las drogas en el siglo XXI” en Mérida, Yucatán, y es completamente responsable por la Escuela de Periodismo Auténtico, cuya filosofía y metodología fueron empleadas en la elaboración de esta nota. La escritura, las opiniones expresadas y las conclusiones alcanzadas, si las hay, son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor
Abertura Total: O autor deseja reconhecer o material de apoio, o propósito e o guia do Boletim Narco News. a Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, o editor Al Giordano, o restante de professores e a Fundaçáo Tides. Narco News é co-patrocinador e financiador do encontro sobre a legalizaçao das drogas Saindo das Sombras: terminando com a proibiçao das drogas no século XXI em Mérida, Yucatan, e é completamente responsável pela Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, cuja filosofia e metodologia foram implantadas na elaboraçao desta reportagem. O texto, as opinioes expressadas e as conclusoes alcançadas, se houver, sao de responsabilidade do autor.
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