Under Attack: Documentarians Discuss Dangers of Frontline Reporting

At the
At the "Journalism at the Crossroads" event: Jorge Valencia, WUNC; Andalusia Knowll of AJ+ and Democracy Now; and Stephanie Martinez, Telemundo. Photo by Miguel Rojas Sotelo

The busy Caribbean port city of Veracruz, in the eastern Mexican state of the same name, has a dark secret.

“In just six years, 16 journalists working in [the state of] Veracruz have been murdered and many others have disappeared,” Andalusia Knoll, a freelance journalist based in Mexico City, said Monday during a panel discussion at Duke. “Veracruz is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.”

A lethal combination of organized crime syndicates, corrupt elected officials and a heightened military presence has resulted in the abductions and assassinations of reporters across Mexico and especially in Veracruz, panelists said.

But Knoll’s harrowing statistics, which she uncovered while filming her short documentary “Journalists are Under Attack: Death in Veracruz,” are not unique to Mexico or even Central America. Armed with nothing more than cameras and pens, investigative journalists in Latin America face constant dangers while doing their jobs. The challenges faced by journalists working in these conflict-riddled and repressive areas were the focus of Monday night’s “Journalism at the Crossroads” event, the first part of a two-day discussion.

The Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) and the FSP co-sponsored the program. Monday’s installment included remarks from journalists Knoll, Leyla Santiago, Jorge Valencia and Stephanie Martinez, followed by screenings of their documentaries.

Patrick Duddy, CLACS director and former US ambassador to Venezuela, noted that journalists in countries just south of the US work under very different conditions than their North American counterparts.

“It’s a difficult time right now for journalists in Latin America,” Duddy said. “This surprises people today, because we have seen elections up and down the Americas. The region appears to have made a strong commitment to democracy and, up in North America, we assume that that entails a respect for the free press. But being a journalist is still very dangerous in some places and remains a profession under pressure.”

Journalists at Risk

Flag of the photo journalists protesting in Colombia during the 1990s. (from the documentary UNCENSORED: Narco Journalism)

Both Knoll, a Mexican-American currently living in Mexico City, and Martinez, a Colombian-born reporter working at Raleigh’s Univision 40, explored the heroic efforts of journalists reporting state corruption and violence despite intimidation and harassment by law enforcement and government officials in their home countries. While “Death in Veracruz” focuses on two journalists working in eastern Mexico in 2015, Martinez’s film: “Uncensored: Narco-Journalism” recounts the intimidation and even assassination of prominent Colombian journalists by drug lords and government officials alike beginning in the 1980s.

Local journalists Jorge Valencia of WUNC and Leyla Santiago of WRAL-TV also shared their documentary work from dangerous and highly repressive environments. Valencia’s audio documentary followed the families of slain Chapel Hill Muslim-Americans Deah and Yusor Barakat and Razan Abu-Salha as they volunteered at the dental clinic in southern Turkey that Deah helped establish.

Santiago pointed her camera at Cuba.. “Inside Cuba” examined the future of US-Cuba relations through brief glimpses into the lives of ordinary Cubans, North Carolina agriculture industry leaders and a Morrisville resident who fled the island more than 50 years ago after facing persecution from the Castro regime.

The two-day event continues at the Forum for Scholars and Publics (FSP) in Old Chemistry today with “Americas and Beyond” beginning at noon. It will include two panel discussions featuring the four journalists from Monday night as well as Mexico City-based journalist Luis Hernandez Navarro (La Jornada) and Paulo Sotera, director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Valencia, Martinez and Santiago will discuss “The Work of the Reporter” in the first session, while Mexican journalist Luis Hernandez Navarro and DC-based Brazil expert Paulo Sotero will join Knoll for “Working Under Siege: Violence, Censorship and Politics” at 1:30pm. For a complete schedule of “Journalism at the Crossroads” events, click here