Thursday, December 5, 2019
Journalists in Central America risk being legally harassed by repressive governments who want to silence them. Free Press Unlimited partner Fundación Latitudes teamed up with El Salvador’s public prosecutors’ school for a legal safety training for journalists and photographers.  

A young woman lies face up on the pavement, a plastic bag covers her head. Cars pass by slowly in the quiet neighbourhood of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, their drivers looking on in horror. A young man in a black t-shirt approaches. He steps over the yellow police tape that surrounds the still body, takes out his camera and starts taking pictures.

In El Salvador, such violent crime scenes are far too common. But in this case, the woman lying on the street is an actress in an exercise staged by the country’s public prosecutors’ school. The photographer is one of a group of journalists from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala who are being trained in media law and crime scene investigation.

Photographer Franklin Rivera/Imágenes Libres

Journalists participating in the training take on the roles of police officer, public prosecutor and detective during the simulation of a crime scene.

Legal training

In a three-day programme organised with support from Free Press Unlimited, they learn about the laws that protect them and the legal limitations they face. The collaboration between the prosecutors’ school and Fundación Latitudes is the first of its kind in the region.

The legal training is the fourth level in the Riesgo Cruzado programme taught by Free Press Unlimited partner Fundación Latitudes. Organised crime, corruption and state crackdowns on the media make Central America a dangerous region in which to be a journalist. Riesgo Cruzado prepares them for the risks they face.

Wilton Castillo/Imágenes Libres

Journalists simulate an excavation during the three-day course.

New developments

“Since we started with the Riesgo Cruzado programme, we’ve looked at what the risks for journalists are and we built the training modules around them,” says Edgar Romero, a co-founder of Fundación Latitudes. “We realised that due to new dynamics in the region, journalists were increasingly being attacked through legal means.”

In the training journalists learn about media law and the legal limitations to press freedom, such as the rights of victims. This can help them defend themselves from legal harassment. The public prosecutors also stage a series of simulations to demonstrate the sensitive nature of crime scene investigations. The journalists take on the role of police officers, investigators and prosecutors. In each simulation, one group member plays a journalist trying to get close-up photos and revealing quotes. This way, the participants learn how to cover crime scenes without interfering with them.

Crime scenes are “delicate”, explains Edgar Romero. Breaking the rules there, can lead to prosecution, for instance when a journalist gets too close and accidentally tampers with evidence. Romero: “We wanted to demonstrate situations where certain mistakes can end in journalists being restricted in their profession.”

Photographer Franklin Rivera/Imágenes Libres

Journalists learn how to report on crime scenes ethically and without interfering with the investigation.

Ethical reporting

Learning about how investigations work can also contribute to more ethical reporting, says Zenaida Rivera, the director of El Salvador’s prosecutors’ school. She says photographers often take graphic images of murder victims: “Imagine the psychological damage such an image could do to the victim’s relatives. And for society as a whole, [the images] normalise violence.”

Danielka Ruiz is one of the journalists participating in the training. She works for Nicaraguan radio station La Primerísima. Although reporting on crime scenes is part of her daily job, this is the first time she receives training on the processes involved: “Until now, I didn’t know about the roles of all the people who work on crime scenes, or about the complex protocols that are in place,” she says.

“[Thanks to this training] we as journalists can be more professional, more ethical and understand that while we play an important role in society, it’s also important to recognise the work [on crime scenes] by authorities.”

Danielka Ruiz from Radiostation La Primerísima

Danielka Ruiz (r) frequently reports on crime scenes in Nicaragua.

Photo's: Franklin Rivera/Imágenes Libres