<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Associated Press Fires Oaxaca Correspondent Rebeca Romero

Undisclosed Conflicts of Interest and “a Consistent Pattern of Sensationalizing Protester Violence while Sanitizing State Violence through Misreporting”

By John Gibler
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

April 5, 2007

The Associated Press fired Oaxaca state correspondent Rebeca Romero due to pro-government bias in her coverage of a six-month-long protest movement that sought to oust the state governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, according to AP reporters familiar with the agency’s work in Mexico.

Jack Stokes, the Manager of Media Relations for the AP declined to comment.

“We rarely comment on personnel issues, including the comings and goings of our paid-by-the-story freelancers around the world,” Mr. Stokes wrote in an email response to questions.

Ms. Romero violated the AP’s code of ethics by accepting payment from the Oaxaca state government for advertisements posted on her website, according to a January 9, 2007 report by Narco News.

Ms. Romero, a former press secretary for the Mexican federal attorney general, also owns an electronic news agency, ADN Sureste (Southeast Digital News Agency). ADN Sureste ran paid advertisements for the Oaxaca state government while Ms. Romero was reporting on the government’s involvement in the conflict, in violation of the AP’s code of ethics.

According to AP reporters familiar with the agency’s work in Mexico, however, the AP fired Ms. Romero as a result of her coverage of the Oaxaca conflict.

Ms. Romero confirmed that she is no longer writing for the AP.

“I am a honest reporter and I am clean, so I don’t have nothing to worry about,” Ms. Romero wrote in an email response to questions.

A review of 15 articles written by Ms. Romero between July and November 2006, show that she cited or quoted twice as many government officials as protesters. Those protesters cited were typically leaders of the teachers union and Oaxaca People’s Popular Assembly (APPO) refuting state claims of their involvement in specific acts of violence.

All the “people on the street” quotes were uniformly critical of the protesters, even though there were tens of thousands of people not associated with any union or political organization that supported the protest movement available to be interviewed.

Ms. Romero did not publish a single article during that time attempting to explain the protesters’ motivations or profile a rank-and-file member of the protest movement.

A review of Ms. Romero’s coverage of the Oaxaca conflict shows a consistent pattern of sensationalizing protester violence while sanitizing state violence through misreporting.

Protesters did engage in acts of property destruction, occasionally apprehended with force suspected police or criminals, on two occasions in November engaged federal police in street battles, and in rare circumstances toward the end of the conflict were seen firing pistols at police attackers—yet no police were ever reported to be wounded by protester gunfire, and in the vast majority of protest actions APPO organizers made a concerted and public effort to avoid acts of violence. Most of the acts of protester violence occurred in October and November, months after para-police had begun to attack and kill protesters.

The state government, in fact, has been widely implicated in organizing para-police units responsible for killing at least 20 people, according to the national Mexican newspapers Milenio, El Universal, and La Jornada, as well as the Mexican National Human Rights Commission and the International Civil Commission for Human Rights Observation.

Ms Romero’s reporting typically obscured the context or time sequence in which violent para-police acts took place, blurring protester responses and police attacks into ambiguous “clashes.”

In several articles Ms. Romero mentioned that police fired on protesters, that people died “in the clashes,” and that “armed gangs” were involved. Never did she report on the documented involvement of local and state police officers in the un-uniformed “armed gangs,” even though such “para-police” groups were filmed and shown on national television and widely covered by the Mexican national press.

Also, all of the killings that took place between August and October involved police ambushes of protester camps and barricades. There were no armed clashes between protesters and police during this time.

One protester fired a pistol in the air during a confrontation in late September, but was quickly admonished by fellow protesters and forced to cease firing.

The first exchange of gunfire took place on October 27, 2006 when a few protesters responded to attacks by firing on groups of plainclothes police and local officials from Santa Lucia del Camino. The police and local officials who initiated the confrontation firing upon the protesters, wounded at least 8 people including a Milenio photographer and killed New York Indymedia journalist Brad Will.

Ms. Romero reported on the state attorney general’s claim that the APPO was an “urban guerrilla” movement, but failed to report on the federal attorney general’s refutation of that claim. This disagreement between the state and federal governments concerning the involvement of armed guerrilla movements in the APPO was widely reported in the Mexican national press.

Ms. Romero’s coverage consistently exaggerated protester violence by implicating the protesters in the armed attacks carried out against them, and by continuing to mention isolated acts of property destruction implying that they occurred daily.

In five distinct articles published between July 23 and August 11, Ms. Romero printed the same sentence with only minor copy edits to characterize the protesters:

“Since then, thousands of teachers, unionists, and leftists have camped out in the plaza, spray-painting buildings with revolutionary slogans, smashing hotel windows and erecting makeshift barricades.”

This characterization, reprinted in five distinct articles over a three-week period, implies that protesters had continued to do all the activities listed. While the protesters had indeed continued to occupy the plaza and spray paint walls, they did not smash windows or erect new barricades during this time (they would do so later).

Ms. Romero misreported events in Oaxaca and even contradicted her own AP reports during an August 25, 2006 radio interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Ms. Romero said that the teachers and the APPO became “a very violent, violent movement” consisting of “radical groups” and that most of them “are armed groups linked to the Ejercito Popular Revolucionario” (Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR).

There is no evidence of armed guerrilla groups such as the EPR participating in the Oaxaca conflict, and even the Mexican federal attorney general’s office denied all claims that guerrilla movements were involved. Only the governor and the Oaxaca state prosecutor consistently alleged such involvement.

During the CBC interview, Ms. Romero said that it was impossible to determine how people had died during the conflict, evading all discussion of well-documented state police involvement in armed assassinations.

Ms. Romero even contradicted one of her own AP stories. On August 11, 2006 Ms. Romero published an article with the headline “Gunmen kill 1 protestor in Mexico.” Her first sentence reads:

“A protester was shot dead when assailants fired on a march of about 8,000 people…”

However, in her August 25 CBC interview, Ms. Romero claims that the victim, Jose Jimenez Colmenares, had urinated on a house prompting a fight with the homeowners who then shot Mr. Colmenares. The Oaxaca state attorney general put forth this version of the events, which was widely discredited by the national press, most of whom had correspondents present in the march when the shots were fired.

Throughout the six-month conflict Ms. Romero’s reporting evidenced disdain for the protest movement, sensationalizing and misreporting acts of protester property destruction and violence, while failing to report on the state government’s involvement in the killing of protesters, which was widely reported on in the national press.

At the time of her reporting, Ms. Romero received payments from the state government for advertisements on her website.

Several individuals sent complaints to the AP, but the agency failed to take action, defending Ms. Romero’s reporting against charges of bias.

A few months later, however, the AP fired her.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America