Media Must Remember Its Duty in the Face of a Threat

09/21/2010 03:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chief among the victories of Mexico's drug cartels is the silencing of its country's presses.

¿Qué quieren de nosotros?

Translation: What do you want from us?

El Diario, Ciudad Juarez's largest newspaper, titled its Saturday editorial with this plea a day after burying another employee silenced by gunfire.

Luis Carlos Santiago was a 21 year old photographer with the daily paper. A gunman shot Santiago and an 18 year old intern in a shopping mall's parking lot during the middle of the day, Thursday. The intern, Carlos Sanchez Colunga, survived. But shot in the head, Santiago died instantly.

A Chihuahua state attorney spokesperson said Monday that the death was not related to Santiago's work. But keeping the shooting, and a crime reporter's slaying two years ago in mind, the border city newspaper finally buckled under the bloodshed.

Translated from Spanish, they said, "We want you to explain to us what you want from us. What are we supposed to publish or not publish, so we know what to abide by."

Chilling and unsettling, the front-page editorial served another purpose. As The New York Times wrote on Monday, the editorial was directed to the drug gangs, but the newspaper staff also hoped it would be read by authorities long helpless in calming the storm.

"You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling."

A few numbers: Since President Felipe Calderon declared war on his country's drug gangs in 2006, more than 28,000 died, with more than 30 journalists having disappeared or died in this time. Some journalists have given in to corruption, not unlike their counterparts in politics and law enforcement.

A federal prosecutor has been tasked with investigating crimes against journalists since February 2006. In the more than four years of his appointment, his office has opened 68 investigations. Just one has resulted in a conviction.

I'm not writing this with grand visions of offering a solution to end the drug war. It is clear the situation in Mexico, fueled largely by our country's lust for narcotics -- some of which may be best served made legal -- left the tracks long ago.

Men and women with decades more experience and education than me have yet to bring a solution to the table. Nor have those with pure and dark hearts. Or, at least, one has yet to be agreed upon.

Rather, this column is what it is: A 22 year old journalist seeing lives risked by others in his craft. A man in the early stages of his career hoping his industry regularly stays abreast because of the efforts of -- and updates from -- organizations like the Committee To Protect Journalists.

For me, the risks that these journalists have often taken has reaffirmed why I do this.

How easy it is to become distracted or, worse, burnt out in this business and others. Our daily responsibilities form a consuming daily routine and cause us to mentally check out. The monotony of a workweek or duties at home too often distract us from the purpose of our chosen paths.

When asked why we do what we do as a living, why do some journalists take so long crafting a coherent answer? Why the confusion?

Journalism needs men and women with a sense of duty. The small, midwestern paper is often all that stands between abuses of power and freedom, and a corrupt person of influence. A large metropolitan news organization can provide -- with work -- checks and balances on leaders whose moral compass became polluted long ago.

And, in the case of Mexico's drug calamity, a free press is a potential bellwether of change, where fear casts a shadow while government and law enforcement offer few answers.

It is dispiriting to read of El Diario's editorial. The criminals have bought that paper's freedom with blood. I cannot criticize El Diario because I have never once had a gun to my head. I have not witnessed the death of a co-worker or loved one at the hands of those I am tasked to report on.

But I know that this fear cannot stand. El Diario, and others facing similar threats, needs support from abroad, support from within and support from the very top.

World leaders and deep-pocketed philanthropists need to back in all ways possible efforts such as the declaration signed by journalists from Latin America and the Caribbean at the recent Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas.

Pressure needs to be applied on governments to ensure that committees investigating crimes against journalists are not created to placate the media, but instead with the sending of a message in mind.

When light shines, roaches scatter.

We in the media can do our part in abating the darkness by reminding ourselves of our purpose.