Bringing together freelance journalists across Central America’s borders

Bringing together freelance journalists across Central America’s borders
Thursday, 25 January 2018 Written by Sophie Baggott

Imagine, for a moment, being a local journalist working in isolation on a significant investigation. Imagine now that your local police force starts threatening you to discard your findings - or else. 

For at least one of the freelance journalists attending a recent safety workshop in Mexico, part-funded by the Rory Peck Trust and organised by the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers, there’s no need to use imagination: this is their reality.
 
Living and working along the borders of Central America can be an intensely dangerous existence for independent journalists. In solitary conditions they often cover high-risk beats, confronting gang violence, human trafficking, corruption and the drug trade.
 
The perils of doing so are clear; since 2016 at least 22 journalists have been killed in Mexico alone. Those in neighbouring countries face similar threats – Guatemala, for example, ranks 118th on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
 
With these dangers in mind, the Rory Peck Trust teamed up with the Border Center to hold a three-day comprehensive security training workshop for twenty-seven journalists from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador in mid-January. RPT also funded seven bursaries to enable freelance journalists from each of the three countries to attend the course.
 
Photo credit: Monica Gonzales

Jorge Luis Sierra, Director of the Border Center, and former ICFJ Knight Fellow, led the workshop. Alongside him as instructors were Mexican journalist Daniela Guazo and former Washington Post foreign correspondent John Dinges. The course aimed to develop attendees’ skills to ensure editorial security in investigative reporting, psychological stability, data protection and physical safety.
 
“The course brought the journalists tools and practices to stay safe, fully verify information, deal with sensitive sources, and reduce the possibility of lawsuits and both reputational and physical attacks”, Jorge Luis said. “They also had the opportunity to develop trust among themselves and set up good relationships for future collaboration.”
 
One way in which the journalists built mutual trust was a digital initiative: “We created a WhatsApp group and they started to use it immediately to share security tips, stay alert to common threats and help each other in difficult situations,” Jorge Luis explained. It was during this conversation that one Guatemalan freelancer opened up about receiving threats from the local police force. “We are discussing in the WhatsApp group how to handle the situation and help our colleague”, Jorge Luis said.
 
“It is difficult because the journalists are covering a lot of violent incidents that happen in indigenous communities because of religion or land conflicts”, he added. “However, they realised in the workshop that they are ‘normalising’ such violence and taking unnecessary risks with no preparation.”
 
Jorge Luis is all too aware of the acute dangers facing the workshop attendees: “As they are mostly freelancers, they don't have the support of a media organisation and frequently have to take public transport in dangerous roads to move from one municipality to the other”, he said. “They also are starting to see evidence of drug-trafficking related murders, which might be an ominous signal of criminal organisations operating in the area.”
 
The workshop sought to tackle these risks head-on and afterwards the attendees spoke of valuable lessons learned. One journalist described the usefulness of Jorge Luis’s Security and Risk Analysis session by saying, “I learned that there are many new technological tools that I am misusing … I must shield my stories and my personal life.” Another attendee said, “I learned the importance of programmes and apps to strengthen and protect my equipment, but above all to protect my information and sources. It’s vital to know the threats facing us and to apply the technological resources to neutralise them.”

Photo credit: Monica Gonzales

Catalina Cortés, RPT’s Senior Programme Officer for Safety and the Americas, said: “It’s so important that local freelance journalists have this unique chance to speak to experts, share experiences with colleagues, and understand the risks they’re facing. The violence against journalists working around the borders is huge, yet this region is in many ways a black hole. This course is not solely about improving their security”, she continued, “It’s also about freelancers being given the space to talk about and discuss what they are facing, so they no longer think that what’s happening to them is normal.”
 
Jorge Luis concluded, “Having the support of Rory Peck is critical to bring security and professional training to these reporters who otherwise don't have other opportunities to take this type of specialised training. The partnership with Rory Peck is also extremely important to create networks of freelance journalists in border areas where criminal organisations that are trafficking with humans and smuggling illegal drugs represent a serious threat to the security of local reporters.”
 
See more of the Rory Peck Trust’s projects around the world by visiting our Freelance Assistance pages.

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