Another Journalist Speaks
out about TV Azteca:
Journalism with Bodyguards
By Ernesto Villanueva
Translated from Notícias
de Oaxaca, May 2000
Journalistic practice and webs of complicity
are a duality that are identified with Mexico more often than
one would like. The facts that have involved the TV Azteca host
Lilly Téllez have put to discovery the point to which
the compromises with power have come: deals that are unnatural
to the making of information and harm the public's right to know.
Of course there is a confluence of facts that back up that assertion.
We will go through them step by step.
It's no secret to anyone that the most
important capital of journalism is its credibility; that is to
say that the process behind which the public considers that there
is a reasonable connection between what has happened and what
the media credibly says happened. Obtaining that credibility
demands the observation of a series of professional rules or
ethics whose excersize continues generating credibility. Between
these ethical points is found the real independence between the
media and its sources of information, between the media and the
government, and the appearance of this independence. The existence
and the appearance of independence are thus required at the same
time. The fact that Miss Téllez has a bodyguard corps
of agents from the Attorney General's office (PGR) generates
the following ethical questions:
Can there exist an independent journalism
with government bodyguards?
Doesn't that generate, to the contrary,
a conflict of interest that undermines the credibility of the
Isn't the matter of the bodyguards of
Miss Téllez, in the end, a question of obtaining unofficial
Can all those informative sources from
the public interest trust in the impartiality of a guarded journalist?
What image would Miss Téllez have
in front of her public and peers if suddenly she were to be placed
as a correspondent in the war in Kosovo or in Sierra Leone?
There will certainly be those who say
that the contributions of Miss Téllez to the right of
the Mexican people to information are model and exceptional,
which explains why her personal safety demands a special vigilance
that our vigorous state of law cannot guarantee. If we accept,
without conceding, that this were the case: Should the Mexican
public pay for the bodyguards of Miss Téllez or should
this protection be paid for by the resources of TV Azteca where
she works? In all cases, if someone has threatened Miss Téllez
so as to place her life at risk, why hasn't she filed a criminal
complaint before the competent authorities, in the case of federal
crimes, the PGR, or common laws, the city prosecutor?
In democratic states of law the parameters
of behavior by journalists run on a distinct path than Miss Téllez
ran in her own conduct, that she exhibits without any shame before
her own strange acts. There, for example, the Statement of Principles
of the American Society of Daily Newspaper Editors says in its
Article I that: "Journalists who abuse the power of their
functions for motives of personal interest or hidden goals are
unworthy of the public trust. The American press won its liberty
not only by informing or serving as a forum of debate, but also
by realizing an independent examination of itself in what is
referred to as the forces of power in society, including the
conduct of offical power at all levels of government."
In the same sense, the Declaration of
Principles of the Canadian Association of Daily Newspapers draws
a sharp distinction from the ethical values of Miss Téllez
when it sustains: " The first obligation of a newspaper
is to be faithful to the public. This implies paying the cost
of seeking news. Conflicts of interest, real or apparent, must
be revealed. Newspapers must protect their independence from
the government, from commercial interests and any other that
tries to change the content for its own purposes."
In fairness to Miss Téllez it will
have to be said that she is not the only one to blame. That's
the truth. She has not been the first, nor the only, nor will
she be the last who will have to be freed from the sins of the
system. It is said that in politics the only unforgiven sin is
to lack complicity. How would Miss Téllez have been able
to have her bodyguards without the permission of the Attorney
General of the Republic - who is so generous with what is not
his - giving a party of police agents to protect the freedom
of speech that the TV Azteca host attempts to represent? Of course,
the federal prosecutor can always say that the public interest
requires the intervention of the PGR to prevent an eventual crime.
But this would only be an excuse to violate the law with impunity.
It's this: Who could truly believe that
the federal prosecutor would be so generous and serving if the
threat were against an anonymous citizen? It's a shame that in
journalistic work the 21st century has begun in Mexico with a
new form of making journalism: Journalism with bodyguards. So
much more was needed.
P.S. On the same theme, a group of organizations
connected to human rights and the media have circulated in recent
days a communiqué that demands more authentic and responsible
journalism. I agree with their point. The problem is, however,
the cause that they invoke in their declaration.
Let's see: "The attack by TV Azteca
on the city prosecutor was brought to the doors of his home,
in violation of his privacy, and implies an abuse of power and
the idea that journalism has been replaced by impunity."
The reasoning is incorrect, in my judgement, for the following
a.) It's not possible to confirm that
the right of privacy of the city prosecutor was violated because
Miss Téllez did not enter his house, but rather only placed
herself near the outer gates, that is, a public place.
b.) Getting near to the outer gates of
the house of the city prosecutor or any other official doesn't
constitute an act of "abuse of power" or "impunity."
To the contrary, it is the duty of every journalist to search
for information particularly when it's about a public servant
who has duties to the public.
As the European Tribunal of Human Rights
has sustained: "Freedom of expression... is one of the principal
foundations of a democratic society and one of the most important
conditions for its progress and individual development.... which
not only applies to forms or ideas that receive favorable response
or are considered innocuous or indifferent, but also those that
wound or bother. What is demanded is pluralism, tolerance and
an open mentality, without which there is no democratic society.
Also, freedom of the press offers public opinion one of the best
means to understand and judge ideas and attitudes of political
leaders. In the most general terms, the liberty of political
controversies belongs to the same heart as the concept of of
a democratic society.... For this, limits to permitted criticism
are widest in relation to a politician are not considered the
same as a common person: the first, different from the second,
exposes himself, inevitably and deliberately, to countability
for his acts and gestures, before journalists like with the multitude
of citizens for whom he must make himself more tolerant."
It would be dangerous that the journalist's
job could become the property of one political party or another.
That would be an irresponsible practice of journalism.