The Media Guardian reported this week that over 40 Mexican media companies have signed a 'Drug Reporting Pact':
"They have agreed, for example, not to publish gruesome images, such as the photos and film of beheaded bodies that are commonly published and broadcast at present. Both newspapers and broadcasters have also agreed not to glorify drug traffickers, saying they will refuse to publish any drug cartel propaganda. Drug barons will not be portrayed as either "victims or heroes"."
The agreement also promises that more action will be taken to protect journalists. More than 20 have been killed in Mexico since 2006.
However, several major media companies have refused to sign, claiming that the agreement could lead to infringements of press freedom. This is despite the fact that the agreement specifically defends the right of the media to criticise government security policy. I haven't got access to the full agreement, but its main points apparently include protecting the rights of victims, treating people as suspects rather than presuming them guilty, encouraging citizens to report crime and reporting violations of human rights by police. It looks wise and valuable, an attempt to cool the escalating soap opera narrative of crime in the public eye and allow the police to get on with their job more easily. It has also been applauded by the International Committee to Protect Journalists.
I wonder if the refusal to sign comes more from the fear that removing sensationalised images and text from drug reporting will reduce sales/audience figures. Press freedom is hugely important, but should it really have no limits? In a strong democracy the media should be free but self-regulating, with a culture of high journalistic ethics. A free press is supposed to staunch corruption in public officials, but sometimes corrupution in the two spheres appear to be feeding each other. The UK comes in at number 20 in Transparency International's global ranking of least corrupt countries, and some parts of our own, very free, British media also seems to struggle with acting ethically (see the recent phone hacking scandal). Mexico is in 98th place, revealing significant levels of corruption amongst public officials. The fact that the agreement specifically bans publishing "drug cartel propaganda" indicates things have gone badly wrong in the press as well.
Clearly the state imposing its will on the media is no way to deal with a lack of ethical conduct, but neither is the media refusing any and all constraints, especially self-imposed ones. The campaign against drugs in Mexico is bloody and entrenched- let's pray that this is a turning point which reveals how a free media acting morally can turn the tide in a society and work for the common good.