February 11, 2006
The War on a Free Press
men rush through the lobby doors and into the newspaper building.
One pulls the clip on a grenade and hurls it into the newsroom.
Both pull out automatic weapons and begin spraying bullets throughout
the office. The paper’s employees scramble frantically for
cover, racing out into the hallways and hiding under desks. In
a matter of minutes the terrorists are gone, leaving the office
a mess of smoke, shattered glass, and debris.
I’m describing might sound like a potential nightmare scenario
involving Islamic terrorists in Denmark or a country in Western
Europe - but it’s not. It took place five days ago in the
Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo.
remain on the loose and the investigation continues, but it’s
clear the perpetrators were members of one of the two fantastically
violent drug cartels that operate with near total impunity in
and around Nuevo Laredo on the U.S.-Mexico border. There is speculation
that the attack on the paper, El Mañana, was conducted
in retaliation for its role hosting a recent seminar for journalists
covering narcotics trafficking.
This is not
the first time drug cartels have tried to intimidate the press
in Nuevo Laredo. Nearly two years ago El Mañana
scaled back its coverage of the drug cartels after the paper’s
news editor was found stabbed to death in his driveway.
policy for reporting homicides in the city – almost all
of which are carried out by the drug gangs and have been occurring
at a rate of nearly one per day so far this year - is to report
the basic facts of the killings but never to mention the cartels
or any individual suspects by name.
In the wake
of Monday’s attack the editor of El Mañana,
Ramon Cantu Deandar, said he plans to roll back the paper’s
coverage even further:
is no point in investigating narcotrafficking. That's an international
problem that not even the authorities have the will to fix.
We're going to cover the killings, but not highlight them on
the front page. We're in the middle of a war here, and we need
to be more careful.”
No one can
fault Cantu Deandar’s decision. As the manager of the paper
with responsibility for the safety of its employees, under the
current circumstances it would be negligent for him to do otherwise.
But Cantu Deandar’s decision also means that the cartels
have achieved exactly what they set out to do: silencing the press
principle is at play on a much larger scale in the uproar over
the Mohammed Cartoons. Islamic extremists are using intimidation
to try influence the decisions of the free press in various nations
around the world. As Charles Krauthammer wrote
unspoken reason many newspapers do not want to republish is
not sensitivity but simple fear. They know what happened to
Theo van Gogh, who made a film about the Islamic treatment of
women and got a knife through the chest with an Islamist manifesto
One of the
lessons to be learned from Nuevo Laredo is that a nation’s
press is only as free as its government’s willingness and
ability to protect it from fear and intimidation - both from external
forces and from the government itself. When these protections
provided by the state break down or falter, fear and intimidation
become exceedingly effective weapons. The ideal of a free press
is almost always trumped by the instinct for self preservation.
In the case
of the cartoon controversy, however, the issue is not local or
national, but cultural. What is at stake is protecting the ideals
of freedom of the press and tolerance as core cultural values
of the West, and whether or not Islamic extremists are allowed
to put limits on or to dictate the boundaries of those values.
When that rubicon is crossed – if it hasn’t been already
– and the West fails to protect its core values from intimidation,
then we are headed down a very dangerous road - a road that may
take us, at least metaphorically speaking, to a place like Nuevo
Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics.
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