February 11, 2006
The War on a Free Press

By Tom Bevan

Two masked 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.

The attack 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.

The attackers 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.

The paper’s 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:

"There 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 through intimidation.

This same 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 recently:

The 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 attached.

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 Laredo.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics.

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