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Hay Festival Cartagena: Literature and State

Wednesday 26 March 2014 - 2:22pm

Literature and State – Anabel Hernández, Dina Meza and Jorge Ángel Pérez in conversation with María Jimena Duzán at Hay Festival Cartagena

A Free The Word! event held on 30 January 2014 at Hay Festival Cartagena brought together distinguished writers and journalists from across Latin America in order to explore the relationship between creation, literature and the State. Speaking at the event were Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernández, Honduran journalist and human rights defender Dina Meza and Cuban writer Jorge Ángel Pérez, with Colombian journalist María Jimena Duzán moderating.

As the discussion unfolded, a number of common themes emerged: corruption; the control of the media; impunity; censorship and its counterpart self-censorship; the role and responsibilities of a writer as citizen; and the vital importance that freedom of expression plays in challenging the status quo.

Hernández and Meza both describe their countries, Mexico and Honduras respectively, as failed states, incapable of defending their citizens and the journalists who try to inform them about their violent realities.  For Hernández, her need to live with bodyguards is one of the most shameful and obvious signs that freedom of expression does not exist. Both women state that the work of PEN and other international organisations have helped protect them and allowed them to continue their work.

See below to listen to the full interview (in Spanish –approximate timings in square brackets [mm:ss] or read summaries of Anabel Hernández’ and Dina Meza’s experiences in their homelands.

Anabel Hernández on Mexico

AH at Hay CartagenaAnabel Hernández (pictured), a Mexican investigative journalist living and working in Mexico City, has dedicated her career to exposing those involved in organised crime. In the case of Mexico, that includes politicians. During the interview, Hernández explains that censorship has driven her to seek alternative modes of reportage, turning from traditional newspapers and magazines to book format, which is increasingly popular in Mexico.

Since publishing Los Señores del Narco published as Narcoland in English in 2010, Hernández has had to live with bodyguards. In her book, she uses the case of one of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords – Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, former head of the Sinaloa cartel – to expose everyone in his network, including government officials [20:00]. The revelation that Génaro García Luna – former chief of the federal police – had close links to the Sinaloa cartel led to a contract being taken out on her life, she says. Threats and attacks continue to be common features in her life; as she explains, only recently 13 armed men broke in to her family home [3:30].Narcoland

Describing herself as apolitical, for Hernández one of her main challenges is not to feel compromised by the fact that the State provides her bodyguard detail. Reconciling the paradox, she explains that her bodyguards are not a gift or political favour; they are a protective measure sought by the National Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CNDH) and international organisations. The state has an obligation to protect its citizens. For Hernández, the need to live with bodyguards is one of the most shameful and obvious signs that freedom of expression does not exist [43:43].

To Hernández, Mexico is a failed state in which the government and organised crime collude in order to brutally repress the flow of information. As she explains, there is not a single party of the left or right that is free of contamination. Génaro García Luna is not the only public official to go unpunished for his crimes, she asserts. In a failed state, there is no judicial system to hold those responsible to account [2:00-5:00].

The figures speak for themselves: according to Hernández, in 12 years more than 90 journalists have been murdered, a further 17 disappeared, while hundreds more live under the threat of death [2:00].

For Hernández, impartiality is a vital tool of any journalist working in Mexico today, without it one becomes tainted by association and, ultimately, ends up prostituting one’s self for another’s corrupt cause [34:00].

Hernández informs us that in states known for drug violence – such as Tamaulipas and Guerrero – where journalists are frequently in the direct line of fire, self-censorship is, unsurprisingly, common. The danger of this is that society as a whole no longer has access to information about the context in which they live [16:00]. According to Hernández, one of the main challenges of journalists in Mexico is not falling into the trap of the ‘cheap and easy sensationalism’ that feeds Mexico’s “narco-culture”. Journalists must instead form the basis of a movement against it, exposing those involved [20:00] as she has done in Narcoland.

According to Hernández, Mexican media is indirectly controlled by the government. As she explains, approximately 60 per cent of funding generated through advertising is dependent on government publicity. If the media “behaves” they will be favoured with government advertising, if it misbehaves the funding will be taken away. One of the vital steps that Hernández sees to improve the situation is for journalists to establish their own media, independent of government funding [55:00-59:00] or to seek alternative means to report. She ascribes the boom in popularity of investigative journalism published as books to the government’s tight control of the media. Indeed, she asserts that books like Narcoland are the most sold of any type of book in Mexico [1:57].

To continue to inform society of the reality of the situation and to fight for the right to do so is one of the main responsibilities and challenges that Mexican journalist must face, Hernández explains [17:00]. For her, freedom of expression is the only way to awaken the population to the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding on their doorstep and say enough is enough [62:00]. For her, change can only come from society. Freedom of expression is the tool through which this can be achieved.

In the face of such challenges, Hernández asserts that it is thanks to international organisations like PEN International, Amnesty, and others, who have campaigned on her behalf, lending international support to the fight for freedom of expression, that she can keep doing her job. As she puts it, “I am convinced that it is this [their advocacy] that keeps me alive [59:45].


Dina Meza on Honduras

DM at Hay CartagenaAward-winning Honduran journalist and human rights defender Dina Meza (pictured, on the left) described the kidnap and torture of her brother by a government sponsored death squad as what drove her to choose her dangerous profession. She believes she has a duty to educate the population about their human rights [41:00].

Meza attributes many of the problems visible in Honduras today to the country’s history and long legacy of impunity. For a century, she explains, power has been concentrated in a small political and economic elite. While the enforced disappearances and other human rights abuses of the 1980s left behind a social debt yet to be repaid, she argues that the coup d’état of 2009 caused what little institutionality the country had developed to be lost [13:00]. Like Hernández, Meza describes the Honduras of today as a failed state. In her eyes, the state is incapable of defending its citizens; none of the institutions that should help to safeguard them – be it the police, the public prosecutor or Supreme Court – work [28:30].

Deep political divisions in Honduras as whole are reflected in those of journalists for whom one is either pro- or anti-coup d’état. To be pro-coup, Meza explains, means supporting those who manipulate the media. Maintaining her independence, Meza explains, is what allows her to manage the grave responsibility of informing the population [41:00]. To be a journalist is a social responsibility to inform her fellow citizens despite the circumstances they face or their political allegiances, Meza asserts. This is the source of one of the main challenges that a Honduran journalist must navigate.

For Meza, practising journalism in Honduras is like having a gun to your head [28:30]. Journalists and human rights defenders are among the most targeted in Honduras. Honduran journalists face immense pressure and persecution; they are the victims of crime and threats. Many of them, including Meza herself, have precautionary measures put in place by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights designed for their protection [15:00]. During the last government administration, 27 journalists were killed – none of which, she claims, have been properly investigated [13:00]. In Honduras, anyone who talks about what is going on – corruption, drug trafficking, state collusion in organised crime –  is persecuted. Who are the actors? Anyone who feels threatened and exposed by a journalist’s revelations [28:30].

It is, perhaps, not surprising then that self-censorship begins at the journalism schools where, as Meza explains, journalists must make the decision of whether to work for the elite-owned corporate media where they must follow an editorial line or circumvent such forms of direct censorship. For Meza, this is one of the principle challenges for journalists in Honduras: how to tell the truth in the face of censorship and threats [31:00 and 55:00].

Meza believes that the work of international organisations like PEN is vitally important [60:30]. As she explains, a recent joint report produced by PEN International, PEN Canada and the International Human Rights Programme of the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law – Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity – highlights these and many other issues connected to the repression of freedom of expression in Honduras [14:45]. For Meza, “it is exceptionally important that organisations like PEN support us…After God, they [PEN and other international organisations] have helped to protect my life… If we were alone, who knows? Who knows if we’d be here? [61:00].

DM with report

Impunity in Honduras: PEN writers testify before Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
PEN-IHRP report Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity
To download an executive summary of the report and its recommendations, click here
A portrait of violence against journalists in Honduras’ - Dina Meza's article written to mark the launch of the report
Endorsements for the report
PEN's statement 'Increased harassment of journalists Julio Ernesto Alvarado and Dina Meza must cease'