Ethics and professionalism don't stop bullets, but reduce risks

Nov 52010

As a part of the ICFJ's program in Panama, we are training correspondents who frequently work under risk covering not only community issues but also crime in cities affected by drug trafficking. Ethics, professionalism and methods of verification and bullet-proofing stories are crucial elements in the workshops.

Panama -- For a brief moment, I felt like being in a Mexico province, not in Colon, at the Caribbean port of entry of the Panama Canal. A TV reporter was speaking about how unsafe it is to cover drug trafficking in Colon because the city is so small, everybody knows you, and journalists are receiving threats, just like Mexican or Colombian reporters are.

Over the last few months, Colon journalists have been covering gang activity, drug related murders, drug shipment seizures, drive-by shootings, and other violent incidents that one can commonly see in Mexico, but not in Panama. Violence is now a current issue in this part of the country.

La Prensa ran this Thursday November 4 a good story on drug trafficking in the Colon area by a reporter who is taking the workshops offered by the Knight International Journalism Fellowships program and the Forum of Journalists here in Panama.

The reporter wrote an article about new patterns of drug trafficking in Colon: "The international narco-cartels have a new kind of operations [in Colon]: they are using locals to set up distribution and custody cells of drug shipments”, wrote the reporter. “This little cells are supporting the drug traffickers with gasoline, meals, housing, and serving them as vigilantes”, said a counter-narcotics officer to the La Prensa's reporter.

A common problem

During October, I visited David, in the Chiriqui province, border with Costa Rica; Chitre, a beautiful town in Herrera, one of the exuberant Central provinces, and finally Colon, an old city built at the Panama Atlantic side. Flor Ortega, the executive director of the Forum of Journalists, our main partner, and I, organized together three workshops for about 50 journalists, training them in Ethics, investigative journalism, as well as verification and bulletproofing stories methods.

Intelligent and enthusiastic as they are, the provincial journalists exchanged experiences, points of view and tips to produce compelling stories. Most of them share a difficult and uncertain labor condition due to low wages, temporary contracts, and problems to obtain reliable information from public officials. However, another concern arose in all the workshops: how we can cover crime, executions, drug trafficking, gang violence, without sensationalism and with safety.

After those concerns, we decided to make a slight change in the program and opened a discussion about the challenge of cultivating sources in cities affected by drug traffickers, how important it is to have a strong foundation in journalism Ethics, and how crucial other professional values such as balance and verification are in this context.

A main concern is of course safety. A TV reporter from Colon said that a protagonist of a gang story he covered recently is his neighbor: “We are in a city, a province, a Country, that is under a convulsion, whether we want it or not , and for us, correspondents, the smaller the city, the bigger the danger”. Sometimes, the same reporter said, correspondents have to decide whether they want to be a professional journalist, or just a regular neighbor worried about the proliferation of gangs.

Coming from a country heavily affected by drug trafficking and organized crime is valuable. I used all my experience covering these issues and training Mexican journalists to cover them. I shared that knowledge with my Panamanian colleagues.

There can be many advices, but at the end of the day a simple truth is valid in all contexts: the very first journalist shields are Ethics, professionalism and credibility. These values don't stop bullets , but significantly reduce the risk of being considered part of the conflict, rather than a journalist simply covering it.