Monday, February 3, 2020
Central America is a dangerous region for journalists. Violent gangs and government censorship are among the reasons why countries such as El Salvador and Honduras slipped even further in the latest World Press Freedom Index, to 81th and 146th place.  

Behind such rankings are the personal stories of journalists risking everything to uncover the facts. Four journalists from the region told us about the challenges they face on the job. They all joined the Riesgo Cruzado safety programme, supported by Free Press Unlimited.

Alex Crúz, Photography coordinator, El Periódico, Guatemala

‘I work a lot on investigations and political stories. [Guatemalan] politics are very corrupt. There are links with drug trafficking and money laundering. It’s dangerous to cover such topics. Right now, a legislator is going on trial after being accused of masterminding the murders of two journalists. Covering gangs is risky too.

I’ve had some bad experiences myself. My equipment was stolen when I was doing a story about gangs extorting bus drivers. It really stuck with me. The robbers already knew who I was, they took their time. It didn’t feel like a normal robbery. I was being targeted.

Several months ago, I survived another attack. I was in a car with my family after going out for dinner with them. On the way back, a car appeared. They tried to slow us down. Then, they fired a weapon and hit my son in the leg. My nine-year-old daughter was in the back of the car as well. It really affected me psychologically because this time, my family was in danger. My son is still recovering from the bullet wound.

Every time I go to a Riesgo Cruzado course, I take home new, practical tools. These help us protect our lives and work in a more professional way. The course has made me aware of how my work affects me physically, both the long days as well as the stress I experience. Simple things like going for a 30-minute walk every day can make a positive impact on my health. This is not something I gave much thought to before Riesgo Cruzado.’

Alex Cruz, Photojournalist, Guatemala

Brenda Arévalo, local reporter, Izcanal, El Salvador

‘The biggest challenge for local reporters in El Salvador are criminal groups. You could walk into a community not knowing which gang has claimed it as territory, and they might think you belong to a different gang. When we enter a neighbourhood, we have to ask permission. If they say no, we leave. Otherwise, we would be risking our lives.

Covering politics can also pose a risk. One year ago during local elections, I published a critical report about a politician. He told me, you will pay for this report. He said he knew how many sisters I had and where my father worked. I was afraid that because of me, he would hurt my family.

Participating in the Riesgo Cruzado safety training is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It can save our lives. It really opened my mind to what’s happening around me. I left the course on a Sunday and the Monday after I was on a bus observing who was around me. I am much more vigilant now. I also got to know other journalists from the same region of El Salvador and I feel that they are looking out for me.

Journalists want to create change by informing society. Security is essential to be able to do this.’

Brenda Arevalo, local reporter, El Salvador

Emilio Flores, Photographer, El Heraldo, Honduras

‘There are various risks for journalists in Honduras. One of them is police. I was attacked by them in the past. It happened at a demonstration I photographed along with colleagues from various media organisations.

I was just finishing up and ready to go back to the office when a young man came running and fell close to where I was standing. He looked like he just came from work and had nothing to do with the demonstration, but police followed him anyhow. When he fell, they started beating him and sprayed him with teargas.

I started taking pictures. A police officer approached and asked me why I was taking photos. I told him, it’s my job. Then he started beating me on the chest with his baton, while others beat me on my back. Fortunately I could get away and run to safety, but they kept assaulting other journalists and photographers.

If we don’t have security, we cannot do our jobs. Without journalists’ photos, videos and articles, people remain blind and deaf.

Riesgo Cruzado has helped me so much. Now when I cover a high risk story I don’t just show up and start taking photos. I stop for a moment to observe who else is there, and if anything suspicious is happening. I figure out where I can run to if something dangerous starts happening.’

Emilio Flores, Photojournalist, Honduras

Inti Ocón, Photographer, Nicaragua

‘Back when I was covering the protests [which took place across Nicaragua in 2018 and during which hundreds of people were killed] there were many dangerous situations. People were shooting and I think even they didn’t know who they were going to hit. There was a lot of violence. Once, I was beaten and my camera was robbed at gunpoint.

Since the outbreak of the sociopolitical crisis in Nicaragua, we have not been allowed to do our work as we need to. How the government is represented in the media is very selective. They decide what we can and cannot report on. When I go out and cover something, I run the risk of being detained and taken to prison. There’s a lot of self-censorship.

The Riesgo Cruzado course did help a lot. I learned to make different choices, for example not to expose myself by walking in the middle of the street. I learned that when there are shots I need to put my chest to the ground immediately.

These days, I’m not working in the press as I was before. I’m still taking photos and making videos, but am not risking my life the way I used to.’

Inti Ocon, Photojournalistt, Nicaragua