The first call is the one you never forget. The person uttering the death threat has spent days preparing for this moment – to let you know that your fate is sealed. Up until this phone call, or email, threats were something ethereal and alien, something that happened to other people.
Over time, I learned what many journalists and writers have learned before me: that becoming the news is a double-edged sword. It can weaken and wound; it unsettles us and sets us apart from our colleagues and loved ones. The threats somehow become as important as the original story.
This dilemma dominates the rest of our lives, because for us to come through safely we need to be out there, in public, and never be silenced. At the same time, we have to always remain on guard, watching our backs, alert whenever we see a police or military patrol, reacting instantly to any sound resembling a shot, tensing every time a motorcycle accelerates or approaches, permanently on the lookout for a weapon in case the rider is a hit man. And on and on, we have to proclaim to the four winds, until we're fed up with doing so – and everyone else is fed up with us too – the name of the mafioso, the politician, the policeman or the corrupt businessman who has put a price on our heads. Yet we yearn for the privacy and anonymity that would allow us to move around without being recognised, for those times when we used to have no need to conceal the names of our family members (for they are now vulnerable too).
As well as the threat of death, there is the threat of imprisonment. Many of my colleagues, from Iraq to Colombia, Cambodia to Kenya, have published memoirs that deal with post-traumatic stress they have suffered as a result of their experiences in jail. Once out of jail, there is the coming to terms with working and earning money, no longer now simply to feed our children, to pay for fuel and water, or for cinema tickets, but to pay lawyers in whose hands, like a small fish out of water, our conditional freedom rests. We spend years in courtrooms, gathering evidence and convincing witnesses to risk their lives by coming on board with us. Cases of defamation are regularly brought against us with the intention of exhausting us emotionally and financially. The courts become yet another weapon the mafia or corrupt politicians can use against us.
There are lessons to be learnt here. As more journalists become victims of the courts, those whose plight they are trying to expose also become victims. We must learn how to interview a victim without obliging them to relive their suffering. Let us learn to show compassion for those who dignify us with the confidence of their personal histories. Let us discover how to conduct investigations so that we do not hurt further those who have already suffered. Let us develop methods of inquiry that protect those victims (of war and the mafia, of natural disasters and domestic violence) whom we interview.
We need to learn to operate in a world where much of the media have been captivated by the spectacle of cruelty, by a morbid fascination with pseudo-pornography, in which there is no pain without blood. In the fabulous world of ratings, to survive and maintain one's dignity is hardly good news. There are always those who demand drama: a few tears from the Mexican journalist who was tortured and imprisoned, then raped in order to ensure her silence, feeds the morbid desire for titillation, not for indignation. In Uganda, the reporter whose hands were mutilated by the military in order to stop him ever writing again is asked to display his stump as if begging for pity. The media ask the Iraqi journalist to recount a hundred times over how US soldiers murdered her children to quell her voice, and how she herself washed their little bodies alone in her house. They insist the South African poet stops reading his verses of love and hope and instead relives the darkness of his cell, shows the camera the marks of the torture he has spent the last ten years trying to forget, and explains how the love of his family faded to the point where, one autumn afternoon, nobody at all came to visit him in prison. And they ask the Russian woman journalist – only two months before she dies – "Are you afraid that they'll kill you? Have you ever thought what might become of your children?" To which she stoically replies, as one who recognises her struggle as moral as well as political must reply, that for as long as the lives of others are not secure, then neither is our own. Later, alone in her hotel room, she calms her sobs by burying her head in a feather pillow. In her dreams, she begs her children's forgiveness and visualises a world in which those who tell the truth – about shameful acts of war and humanity's incapacity to negotiate conflict, about the rapaciousness of the powerful, who use war to exterminate or for the acquisition of material goods – do not pay with their lives.
Why do we tell our tales? Why do we move on from being the narrators to becoming the subjects of our narratives? What do we do about our dual role of playing both narrators and characters in the same drama?
I have put such questions to more than a hundred people, both writers and journalists, with whom over the past six years I've done what we smilingly call the "tour of heroic celebrity". We are awarded prizes; invited to hold round tables reflecting on investigative journalism, on war and peace, or on human rights; we are asked to write for online and print publications, translated into Zulu, Spanish, Turkish or in French, English or Italian. As we are not – nor have any desire to be – preachers, we look to share our convictions openly and honestly.
Without knowing it, we have become part of a global fraternity. We are the survivors of a war without barracks, a war bent on eliminating freedom of expression by every means possible. By becoming the story, we have silenced many other voices and stories. We go about the world talking of our tragedies as if they had become a symbol of those of our country, or of other people's countries. This fraternity would not exist without the human networks that protect us from within their own stable and secure bases.
This revelation is what impelled the author of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie, to renounce the bodyguard who made false claims about him in a book, to dare to live free of ties, fed up with going through life the prisoner of his own words. It is what inspired the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya to make a political act of leaving the supermarket alone, as a free citizen, reminding her president every single day that if she was killed, she and so many among us would know it was he who, whether by omission or commission, would be responsible for the murder. And this revelation impelled the young Italian journalist, Roberto Saviano, to dare to denounce his government earlier this year for attempting to pass a gagging law, knowing that his outspokenness could mean the removal of the national policemen there to protect him from the mafia, hell-bent on killing him for treating them so wonderfully in the pages of his book, Gomorrah.
It is what inspired a group of young people in Sudan and Uganda, whose hands had been mutilated or cut off by soldiers, to take up radio journalism for which "hands are not necessary: one only needs a voice and a will". It is the concept of being free within the ideological prison of an island, where the young woman Yoani Sánchez reveals a Cuba that Che Guevara himself would have fought against for being a dictatorship.
This paradox is woven into our daily lives. International recognition sustains us with life, and our dignity demands that we never cease denouncing our persecutors. Their acts of aggression are intended to silence us, wear us out, or distract our attention from what's really important. Prizes and accolades are converted into shields to protect and forums to express the messages others are trying to conceal.
For every time our body rebels and says "not again!" to another 15-hour flight, eating badly, sleeping worse, in order to repeat the story told a thousand times over, a little inner voice replies: "You are alive, you have to do it." When others insist that we are heroes or heroines, we are genuinely reluctant to believe them. I've never known of a single colleague who has been tortured, or who lives with the threat of death and persecution for their work, in such a confused state of mind that they believe that working in the defence of individual and collective freedoms is an act of heroism. We know full well that it is nothing more than an exercise in survival and shared dignity. We also understand, for we are constantly reminded of it, that the world demands its heroes to be examples who defend human rights with their voices, their words and their culture – those rights that prompt us to demand access to water, food, land, justice and, ultimately, the right to lead a happy life, free of violence. So it is we can proceed anew to the forum of the survivors: like optimistic chroniclers, we document the tragedy and nourish the possibility that all this will disappear if we persevere together in making it so.
To reveal the opprobrium of power requires a monumental effort, yet it's a daily task. For inside the world of the persecuted there are more and more who seek to pass themselves off as professional victims. They include those who have already surrendered; who fight only their own battles; who understand that at times suffering makes for good business. Even though they may be few in number, they are the ones who have a tremendous power to render us invisible to the media on our home patch. They are the ones who give up, or carry on negotiating with the forces of power, even so far as to seat themselves at their table, sharing their bread and salt, frequently steeped in blood. They are those who collaborate in the message that death threats are merely boring; those who, greased by the palms of corrupt politicians, make strenuous efforts to discredit us. Little by little, rumours filter out: "so many prizes ... maybe that's what's behind her denunciations" or "if they really wanted to kill her, they would have done so", or "he's just another martyred poet". There are those set out to wear us down, and to render the dispensation of justice impossible. It is they and no one else who know, deep down, that some of us survive because we strive for this every day of our lives; because thousands of eyes are upon us, because our visibility has succeeded in raising the political stakes if we are removed. Until one day our luck runs out.
The maestro of Mexican journalism, Jesús Blancornelas, the founder of the weekly news magazines ABC and Zeta, survived a hail of bullets in 1997 and spent the rest of his days (he died of cancer in 2006) blockaded in his house in Tijuana, ringed by armed soldiers. He carried on working with an immeasurable capacity to inspire. One afternoon I went to speak to him, with the ingenuous idea of learning the secret of living under the constant threat of death, in his case the result of revelations of collusion between politicians and a drugs cartel. In mine, it was the mafias trafficking young girls and the politicians who protect them. We compared notes on the price set on each of our heads by the mafiosi (a sense of humour is essential to drive out fear). The maestro told me: "Show them a good man, and they'll ask you to bring in a thousand more to prove that good truly exists; show them an evil man and they'll tell you he brings all human evil with him." "Never give up on calling the good together," Jesús recommended. "Even if it should cost you your life, you must trust, believe and approach those who, without knowing you, will know the importance of what you see and document, the importance of what you write." At the end of the discussion, I realised that my grandmother was right when she told me: "Inspire what is good in order that what's good may inspire you." The Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuscinski put it differently: "This is no task for cynics." And he's right. It is not.
A young reporter once asked me what I have done to overcome the threats. "It is not a matter of saving your life, but of ensuring that every moment is worthwhile for as long as you are alive," I responded. He took a sheet of paper out of his briefcase. It was the printout of an email containing a death threat for his investigations into drug trafficking in Durango. He told me he was convinced it came from local officials and stashed it away again, as if it were something to be treasured. I advised him to go to the capital, that we'd kick up a fuss within the international community, that we would denounce the drugs traffickers he was investigating. "I don't think they'd dare," he said with a smile. Three months later, his inert body was found a few blocks away from the office of the newspaper where he worked. That newspaper, like so many in my country, gave up publishing news about organised crime. They kill one to silence the many, which is why we insist that so many of us speak out, so that the few can never silence us.
Mexican president Felipe Calderón persists in berating the press, and in a vein of the purest George W Bush-speak, assures us: "Those who are not with me are against their homeland." Like those journalists who denounce institutional corruption, military violence against civilians and journalists, police forces colluding with kidnappers and sex traffickers. Because we are the ones who demonstrate the ineffectualness of the Mexican government in the face of the violence and deaths of thousands of Central American migrants, we are deemed to be the enemies of our country, still pretending to be a democracy.
We are the enemy, and truth is the enemy of a nation refusing to engage in self-criticism and assume responsibility for its own tragedy. This is why the public prosecutor whose job it is to protect journalists repeatedly fails to investigate attacks against them, does not acknowledge the dangerous conditions in which they work – and has tried to ruin the reputations of several journalists.
Now there are 19 colleagues whose deaths the Mexican authorities refuse to investigate. Sixty-four journalists have died in my country. Not one of these murders has been explained.
When a colleague loses their life, the authorities sow rumours that they are in the pay of organised crime, or else it must have been a crime of passion; if a woman has disappeared, then they say she must have run off with a man. My grandfather, a soldier, used to say that an enemy is killed twice over. First the bullet puts paid to a man's life, closely followed by the humiliation that destroys his humanity: the latter is his true annihilation. That is why, when Jesús Blancornelas died, and society demanded a funeral worthy of such a great journalist, the then mayor of Tijuana, Jorge Hank Rhon, said that his life was not worthy of commemoration, that people die every day.
Each time I am asked what is the most original slander targeted at me, I explain how the governor of Puebla, who threw me into prison to protect the mafia, ordered his press chief to proclaim that I was a guerrilla fighter, and my book a tactic to destabilise the state. So it was that the guerrilla leaders published a disclaimer in the daily papers across the country, stating that I most certainly did not belong to their organisation, and that my work was of critical importance to the children of Mexico.
In my country, journalists operate as reporters, investigators, security strategists and therapists. We know our phones are tapped and speak in code. The vast majority of reporters never agree to appointments or meetings by phone, in order not to reveal sources. There are villages where journalists work semi-clandestinely, just as in Zimbabwe. There are cities where my women friends report with the same trepidation as my colleagues in Baghdad. There are nights when the phone rings and a premonition takes my breath away, my mind immediately trying to ascertain from the prefix of the number on my screen which part of the country the call is coming from. I respond slowly, in a low voice. Please let it not announce a death, not of yet another person, nor even my own.
The last two occasions on which I travelled to Spain, after giving talks about freedom of expression in my own country, I received news of the murder of colleagues who had already told me of the threats they had received. They had ignored my advice. One of them told me, before his murder, that he did not wish to live as I did, underneath the glare and the harsh criticisms of those powerful and corrupt moguls, always following my every step and every word, anticipating an error and ready to discredit me when I fumble. He admitted that so many prizes had tarnished my image, that numerous editors were protesting that I only denounce the threats I receive because I enjoy celebrity; that journalists should not be the news, but make the news. I replied that as fame is a life-saving tool, I have no problem with being famous and he should therefore have no problem either; in this country, under these circumstances, our names shall eventually appear in the media, either as a survivor or as a mortal victim.
In his obituary there was a tiny mention of the manner of his death, but it failed to mention that he was threatened with murder in exactly the manner in which it occurred. Fear has a great many faces. It makes some active and some responsive; others keep themselves to themselves. Many give in and go along with the system they formerly denounced, and who can blame them? There is no one to protect them. Self-censorship plunges us all into darkness, and opens the door to uncertainty.
In my home country, more and more journalists subject themselves to self-censorship. The younger ones start to lose heart when their publications decide that their columns should appear unsigned, in order not to put them at risk. They say if their work has to appear anonymously, there's no point in them making efforts that will go unrecognised. Others, mostly young women, insist that what's most important is that they provide news. It doesn't matter whose name appears at the bottom of the page: what counts is that society has access to this information. Most of them feel abandoned by the owners of the press, who refuse to protect them, or to provide adequate training for them to assess the risk for themselves; or even to acknowledge their worry and stress when they receive death threats. In recent months, some editors have united to defend the sector as much against the drug cartels as against the attacks of corrupt politicians. International solidarity has played a key role in achieving this.
In Mexico, death threats are hardly newsworthy. Nor is death, or the struggle to remain alive. Maybe this is why my father, in solidarity and with great emotion, asks me why I refuse to accept the idea of living in another country for a while, one where I would not be considered an enemy of the state because I defend human dignity.
Six years ago, when I was imprisoned and tortured by a mafia who trafficked in minors and child pornography, parts of the Mexican media exclaimed: "A woman who opposes mafia power!", as if in surprise. Thanks to their reaction, society looked at and listened to me, but most importantly, it reacted and demanded justice for the hundreds of children who are the victims of sexual tourism and child pornography. Legislators created new laws to protect children, and when I was cleared of defamation charges, women on the streets, old and young, applauded and embraced me. They stopped me in public places to congratulate me on having reminded them that truth has power – and so do women who refuse to subject themselves to macho violence.
Only the other day, as I was pushing my trolley along the supermarket aisle, two older women approached me and asked, "Are you the writer?" Timidly, I said, "Yes". One woman threw herself at me for a typically Mexican style embrace, informing me that her granddaughter wrote an essay at primary school on her chosen heroine. It was me. "Why did she choose me?" I asked, and she answered: "Because we are all a little bit like you, and you remind us of it, when you refuse to give in, when you won't hold your tongue, and when you smile and tell us that the world is also ours."
Perhaps that's what it comes down to in the end. Journalism brings it all together. We can't ask others for something we are not inclined to give. There are moments to listen and others to be listened to. It is not enough to arouse empathy, it is not our job to make people cry. What we have to do is to reflect an outrageous reality with such power that it inspires the hope that all people want to participate in and be responsible for change. Objective journalism does not exist: we are not objects. We are subjects, so we write subjective journalism, and to do that well, everyone's rights and everyone's lives are of equal importance. Sometimes we tell the story. And at other times, we are the story.
Original in Spanish
Translation by Amanda Hopkinson
First published in Index on Censorship 4/2010 (English version)
Contributed by Index on Censorship
© Lydia Cacho / Index on Censorship