Although Adela Navarro Bello has seen her editors murdered for covering the Mexican drug cartels, and has received death threats herself, she has no intention of slowing down when it comes to reporting on the violence in her country.
The general director of Zeta newsmagazine in Tijuana, Mexico, is one of four brave women journalists to be honored by the International Women’s Media Foundation at the 2011 Courage in Journalism Awards for risking their lives to cover the news. Two events are slated, for October 24 in Los Angeles and October 27 in New York.
Joining Navarro, 43, are Reuters Iran bureau chief Parisa Hafezi, online newspaper director Chiranuch Premchaiporn of Thailand, and reporter Kate Adie, the BBC’s first chief news correspondent, who will be awarded the IWMF’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
We recently spoke with Navarro about the dangers her job entails, self-censorship in her country and why investigative journalism is more important than ever before. An edited version of the interview follows.
More: What led you to journalism and covering such a dangerous beat as drug trafficking?
Adela Navarro Bello: The drug trade in Mexico and the empowerment of drug cartels and their leaders is a reality that we, as journalists, can’t pull away from. At Zeta, we practice investigative journalism, with independence and freedom—this is how we deal with subjects that affect the society in which we live. In this moment, in my country, the subject of organized crime has led us to violence, with more than 56,000 murders in five years, the uprising of new cartels. Not writing about them or investigating this matter won’t make them disappear. On the contrary, the degree of impunity with which they operate, with the support of governments, police and corrupted judges—this problem will grow.
More: You feel an obligation to your readers.
AN: For Zeta, our readers are the most important thing in the world. They are the reason we get around. We owe ourselves to them and we investigate for them. Our readers provide us enormous feedback, not only through the letters they send to us, but through the complaints they make. The subjects that they’re interested in, that’s what we investigate. This is why I can say that 60 percent of what we publish comes directly from our readers. In 31 years of existence, we have offered investigative journalism, and that’s what they demand. At the same time, there is criticism of our work.
More: How did the murders of two of your Zeta colleagues affect the work you do?
AN: Those were very difficult moments for us at Zeta. Today, there are a few co-workers who lived through the murder of [co-founder and editor] Héctor Félix Miranda in 1988—I started my career at Zeta in 1990. We learn to live through this, to suffer through this and to demand results, as [co-founder] Jesús Blancornelas taught us to do via Zeta—to build a strong defense so that this murder won’t go unpunished too. Because the man who ordered Félix Miranda's murder was never arrested, and the person suspected of doing this is Jorge Hank Rhon, he is a public person in this city where we have our offices. The people who know form a part of the editorial team at Zeta [and] continue fighting for what Jesús wanted, which is a solution to this case.
In 1997, 10 assassins from the Arellano organization tried to kill Jesús Blancornelas when he was the general director of our publication. During the ambush, Luis Valero Elizalde, his bodyguard, was killed. Blancornelas spent two months in the hospital, and during that time the editors led this publication and opened an investigation, in [the course of] which they determined that the Arellano drug cartel did participate in the crime.
My co-editor Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco was murdered in June of 2004. Like Blancornelas in 1997, Ortiz Franco had investigated and published reports that revealed the way the Arellano cartel operated. He also provided names, photos and general information about the cartel's key members.
In none of these four cases, which have affected us deeply, and in which my co-workers were killed [or wounded] because they were investigative journalists working in an area dominated by organized crime, have the federal authorities or the state authorities concluded their investigations so that the murderers can be put behind bars. Only with regard to Félix Miranda’s murder have the men who pulled the triggers been arrested—but the person who ordered that crime is still a free man. Concerning the murders of Luis Valero and Francisco Ortiz Franco and the attack against Don Jesús Blancornelas, there’s not one person in jail because of these crimes. As with many crimes in México, these have been left unpunished.
More: Does this make you fear for your own life?
AN: This is not something I think about every day. If I feared for my life I surely would’ve switched jobs by now. I’m dedicated to journalism because it’s my calling, it’s my profession and my passion. The precautions we take at Zeta aren’t out of the ordinary, these are the steps anybody would take to protect their integrity. The most important thing is not to lie, not to exaggerate the stories we publish, to investigate and confirm the information we publish. Also, after Blancornelas retired as director of Zeta in February of 2006, the stories that reveal information against cartel members and the way the cartels operate are signed by Investigaciones Zeta, a faceless reporter.
More: How do your family and friends feel about your job? Do they ever ask you to stop?
AN: No. Everyone has been very respectful of my work. From my family and friends, all I’ve gotten is support.
More: How do you feel about self-censorship in your country, and what are some of the things Zeta is doing to fight it?
AN: At Zeta we practice our right of freedom of speech with responsibility and investigation week by week. We don’t judge the ones who choose auto-censorship, but from our news headquarters we promote freedom of speech.
More: What message do you think your courageousness sends other women around the world?
AN: That journalists who work on investigative journalism are not alone. That there are organizations out there, such as the IWMF, that watch over us and support us by sending a message of solidarity so we may continue to do our jobs.
Click here to learn more about the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Meet the other 2011 Courage in Journalism Award Winners:
Kate Adie, former BBC chief news correspondent
Parisa Hafezi, Reuters bureau chief, Iran
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of Prachatai online newspaper, Thailand
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