Five years after Ayotzinapa: the challenge for journalists to raise awareness of the impact of serious human rights violations

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Emir Olivares Alonso, Journalist at La Jornada, Mexico

On the night before the presentation of the First Governmental Report by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on 1 September, an unexpected event occurred which called into question the Mexican justice system. One of the main suspects accused of playing a major role in the September 2014 forced disappearance of 43 students from the rural teacher’s college in Ayotzinapa was released from custody.

Gildardo López Astudillo El Gil, allegedly a lieutenant in the Guerreros Unidos criminal organisation, was cleared of the charges against him by a federal judge who rejected 81 pieces of evidence presented by the Mexican judicial authorities, as he considered that this evidence had been obtained illegally, including through the use of torture.

Beyond the issue of whether El Gil is responsible or not for the crimes against the student teachers in Ayotzinapa, a case which impacted people not just in Mexico but around the world, the evidence against him was inadmissible because public servants from the former Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República - PGR) used torture against this suspect and others, a practice which had already been documented by the Mexican Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

For more than a decade, my experience in the world of journalism has led me to form a particular belief. For me, Mexico is a country where nothing happens and where anything is possible. And yes, a country where torture is a systematic and widespread practice, as found by Juan Méndez, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Ayotzinapa is a case of global importance for Mexico, and in spite of this, public servants from the PGR dared to use illegal practices, including torture, to build their own version of the so-called “historical truth”. Thanks to the efforts of the student teachers’ families, civil society organisations, independent experts and national and international human rights bodies, this “truth” was clearly shown to be a hypothesis constructed by the Mexican authorities with no basis on legal or scientific evidence.

If this has been the experience in such a prominent case, what can we expect for the rest of the cases being investigated by the justice system in this country?

That is why journalists who specialise in reporting on issues of security, justice and human rights must deepen their knowledge on the Mexican State’s international obligations in relation to fundamental guarantees, within both the United Nations and the Inter-American systems.

Conscious of this, the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT) has made significant efforts to support capacity-building for journalists on the issue of torture, and in particular, knowledge about the scope of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which established the Committee against Torture (CAT).

Thanks to the OMCT, last November a group of Mexican journalists visited Geneva, in Switzerland, to take part in a workshop which included an exchange with various experts, where we were able to understand the way in which the CAT examines States.

Three journalists, including myself, were fortunate to return again to Geneva in April this year, when Mexico appeared before the CAT, and to put into practice what we had learned during the first visit.

We were able to closely follow the examination of Mexico, during which victims and civil society organisations made presentations to the UN about the situation. Meanwhile, State representatives argued that although torture exists in the country, it is not a widespread practice, as stated by the members of the CAT. Days later, a series of recommendations were made which must be fulfilled by the Mexican authorities to combat this practice.

Among the recommendations, it is important to highlight the need to adopt measures to ensure that statements made under torture are inadmissible; the urgent need to approve a National Program to prevent and punish torture and ill-treatment, with guarantees for the participation of civil society organisations; and a request to the Mexican State to “pronounce itself unambiguously in favor of the respect for the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment”.

The visit enabled each journalist present in Geneva to provide interesting coverage of the examination. Personally, I found the experience enriching and professionally challenging. The newspaper I write for, La Jornada, is one of the most important in the country, with a national readership and a progressive editorial style. During each visit, I was able to write articles of interest which were included among the main stories in the newspaper.

The experience also made me reflect even more on something that I have faced every day in my career as a journalist. Before typing up a news article, an interview or reportage, related to any human rights issue, a journalist, at least in my case, asks themselves a difficult question: ”How can I convey these sensitive and relevant issues to citizens who are immersed in resolving their own day to day problems?”

The exchanges I saw in Geneva between experts and State representatives have led to positive results. Thanks to the training and media coverage, the news items produced did their best to pressure the State into complying with Mexico’s international obligations by following up on the recommendations issued by the CAT.

Nevertheless, the challenges are now even greater. Since the moment I began my studies in journalism, I understood that this is a profession which implies a significant social responsibility, and which can offer elements to gradually bring about change in society.

We now have more elements and knowledge to write about issues related to the practice of torture, the despicable nature of this crime, Mexico’s international commitments, as well as the observations made by the CAT and their possible reach. The challenge is to convey this technical knowledge to readers so that they can understand the relevance of this issue.

The human rights community must be self-critical. Journalists specialising in these issues, as well as defenders, activists and representatives of civil society organisations and international bodies often move in the same circles and do not reach the general public.

It is almost always the same people who attend forums, conferences and discussions. Equally, we reporters who write about these issues sometimes use a terminology and style aimed at people who already know about the subject and we write or report thinking that our readers are experts, when this is not the case.

The experience in Geneva and my professional journey have made me think that both activists and journalists need to start thinking outside the box when writing about human rights. We need to reach the public, to move them, to make them see that these are relevant issues, that they have an effect on daily life.

When people understand that human rights violations are unacceptable and that there are safeguards which must respected, society will begin to feel empowered and demand its rights, changing the usual “nothing happens here” story and the official versions, to tell the truth and demand accountability for serious events like the disappearance of the 43 students five years ago. At the end of the day this should be the ultimate goal of journalists and activists: transcend these issues to achieve social transformation. Thiss is the challenge, and it is huge. We must be allies and work together hand in hand, which is why the efforts of the OMCT and the commitment of journalists to put knowledge into practice are so relevant.