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 media?

Isn't the matter of the bodyguards of Miss Téllez, in the end, a question of obtaining unofficial information?

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 reasons:

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.