The Sowers of Fear
“Are we witnessing the death of journalism or the end of the courage to speak the truth?”
The appraised writer, human rights activist, and journalist Lydia Cacho writes about a brutal climate in Mexico where all who openly advocate freedom of expression—in particular women and investigative reporters—are forced to take enormous risks. There is an ongoing debate surrounding the horrifying number of missing people in the country: 73 313 are estimated to have disappeared in Mexico up until July 2020. The same applies for the number of murdered women, so called ‘femicides,’ which has escalated significantly during the current pandemic. But these numbers are denied and distorted by the sitting President López Obrador, and to publicly contradict them has dire consequences. Persecution, lynching in social media, and the spreading of false rumours have proven highly efficient methods.
Several days ago a renowned artist and human rights advocate in Mexico asked me how we can counter the attacks of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on the women’s movement. The discussion became deeper the moment she admitted that she lives in fear of being lynched on social media, since to a large extent her career, prestigious as it is, depends on her direct communication with the millions of people who follow her on these networks. The key phrase I hear time and time again around the world is ‘fear of lynching’, inevitably imagining how women trying to defend their liberties in the Middle Ages or the Enlightenment would speak, when they didn’t even have access to public debate, when their citizenship wasn’t recognised, when only a small handful had been recognised by history: hetaerae, warriors, or some queens who reproduced patriarchal roles to perfection to keep themselves in power.
Today it no longer matters whether the president came to power from the left, the right or centre. Now the central focus is on the capacity of political leaders to distort reality, lying from positions of power not seen since mass media became counterweights to power; are we witnessing, then, the death of journalism or the death of the bravery to tell the truth?
This is an absolutely necessary question these days in which the presidential election in the United States will determine whether one of the most powerful countries in the world will continue to be governed by the sower of fear, the fear of telling the truth and accepting the consequences, which is exactly what we investigative reporters do almost everywhere in the world. Mexico hasn’t fallen behind - President López Obrador has been dedicated to giving morning press conferences since he came to power on December 1st 2018. Five days a week from 7 a.m., the Mexican press must be present if it wishes to know what the president of the country is doing; the most well-known presidential phrase to date is ‘we have other data’. Faced with figures that reporters put to the president and his cabinet every morning, the political leader responds with his own figures - no matter that the numbers presented by the reporters proceed from the very government he leads. For example, faced with the rise in femicides in Mexico since the beginning of the pandemic, the president has declared that the majority of complaints of domestic violence from women are false - that is, he claims that the women are lying. The fact that the numbers have gone from ten to twelve women or girls killed daily seems of little importance to the powers-that-be. The journalists who pointed out his error were lynched on social media as enemies of the State. The same happened with the national network of children’s rights, which reported the rise in child disappearances in the last year. The presidential answer was the same: they had other figures, things aren’t as bad as human rights advocates or reporters specialising in human rights suggest. What is certain is that the same authority recognises that up to July 2020, there have been reports of 73,313 people under 18 that have gone missing in Mexico. Every day 7 girls or boys disappear or are kidnapped in the country, but the president has an answer to divert the conversation both with the media and anyone who questions him; lynching is always the step that follows the strategy of distorting reality or blaming the leaders of the past for all present evils.
The same occurs with the militarisation of the country. The president that arrived on the shoulders of the left, declaring himself an enemy of the bloody war against drugs orchestrated by ex-president Calderón and the North American government, has already succeeded in having 13% more soldiers doing police work in the country, without managing to arrest the levels of extreme violence of organised international crime that reporters like me investigate. This brings us to slavery and the policies that support it, particularly the trafficking of women, girls and boys for the commercial sex industry. The pandemic has boosted the perfect storm for criminals to continue stealing, buying and selling people, while the police forces are focused on the pandemic and the institutions of justice semi-closed and overflowing with cases. Now everything is carried out in cyberspace, including purchases, and China is the number one provider of goods fabricated with slave labour; a double pandemic on top of the pre-existing humanitarian and economic crisis in authoritarian countries.
Given that it’s a way of sustaining its economy, the president of China has decided that slave labour cannot be abolished. Rahima Mahmuth, the spokeswoman of the World Uyghur Congress, has documented with evidence how the Chinese government exploits the young population of Islamic and Turkish origin from what we used to know as East Turkistan and today has been baptised Xianjiang. The reporters who have investigated how these bonded factories function as prisons of slave labour have been silenced, persecuted and publicly humiliated and, as in the rest of China, their access to the internet is controlled by the methods of governmental spying similar to those in the rest of the world.
Can one compare three such different political regimes when speaking of attacks on freedom of expression and violations of human rights? I think so, in fact I’m sure one can. Having investigated and travelled through 143 countries documenting the working methods of the mafia of dealers in women, girls and boys, I’ve managed to establish a methodology of journalistic work which allows me to discover and interpret criminal and political patterns favouring two forms of violence that work in parallel: attacks on freedom of expression and attacks on those who defend human rights. It’s no coincidence that every day there is a greater number of war reporters, experts in human rights and peace journalism, with methodologies that allow them to find evidence of repeated patterns of the use of a fictional narrative with the goal of destroying the documentation and dissemination of actual facts. Those who pay the initial consequences are the journalists and rights advocates - next are the citizens dedicated to every other profession, frightened by the fear of humiliation, discredit or their economic welfare. The important thing for a great number of political leaders - from those previously mentioned to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba - is to succeed in discrediting professional journalism; they’ve discovered that the persecution of some well-known reporters turns out to be a good method for silencing hundreds who believe continuing to try isn’t worth it. Presidents like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and various Mexican governors use the judiciary as an instrument of punishment and imprison the reporters proving their acts of corruption on false charges. They all use a common set of tools: attacking the reporting of the facts to discredit those who document them, systematic lies, claiming that it’s the journalists who are lying, making society believe that in reality no-one knows which facts are real and which aren’t, and finally social fatigue, which leads to people refusing to follow, see or listen to the news because they perceive a great burden of violence behind every article, report or podcast.
Before, it was believed that authoritarianism came from extremist regimes. Today we know there is an intangible war against society: political missiles against journalism, electronic manipulation, tactical denial, control and monopoly of technology and cyber-space, jamming of credible journalists’ accounts, public humiliation from those in power and the creation of noise disturbance online which impedes investigations being read clearly and followed.
All of the above has created a feeling - prior to the pandemic - of an undermining of freedom of expression, and as a consequence has incited great anxiety and social panic already exacerbated by the pandemic. While the powerful retain control through fear of death and mistrust of reality, more than ever society needs its reporters, we who investigate on the streets, in the hospitals, in the brothels that haven’t closed despite the pandemic. We who have also learned to handle this anxiety of being discredited and threatened daily - first by criminal groups we have investigated, then fanatics, trolls and bots paid by political parties of different stripes.
Now the the threats against freedom of expression and information have created a wave of journalists defeated by exhaustion, activists silenced by fear, by feeling that the complaints of millions of victims of all manner of crimes can no longer be heard.
As well as all the instruments within their reach, now the powers-that-be have a global health crisis in addition to the pandemic of official lying. Against all this we journalists fight daily, convinced that our work is indispensable for society, that we cannot fall into the isolation we are brought to by the information vacuum. After decades of fighting sexism, racism and other forms of exclusion that used to exist in the essays of the mass media itself forty years ago, after we women journalists brought the language of gender into thenarrative, having created the specialism of human rights reporting, we cannot give up, not now. We’ve said for years that killing journalists doesn’t kill the truth; now we must raise our voices to say, as many times as is necessary, that the truth and verified facts aren’t destroyed by humiliating us publicly.
Politics and its parties are big businesses. Many of them operate like transnationals that do business with mafias, wash their faces with dirty hands and have found in many cases that using the strategies of religious groups means their followers respond by protecting them like throngs of the faithful, like fanatics on social media piling on, charging at the enemy they consider most dangerous to them: professional, ethical journalism that investigates from beginning to end, sustained by the millions of voices that wouldn’t be heard without this profession; those who due to the technological gap and governmental censorship don’t even have access to the means by which to complain.
Returning to basic principles: rigorous investigation, strategy, understanding of the territory in which we work, acceptance of the risk that our career entails, recognition of the honour conferred on us by the trust of the victims who need to be seen by the world. To continue being spokespersons of reality with all its forms of violence, oppression and exclusion, protecting our credibility is indispensable. Protecting our passion for defending truth, justice and ethics. Beginning again, if necessary: reinventing journalism from the trenches of a war against silence, amid a pandemic that is becoming big business for the sowers of fear.