Mexico media courts anonymous tip-offs

In a country rife with corruption, crime and abuse – and where saying the wrong thing within earshot of the wrong people can get you killed – Mexican journalists can have a hard time obtaining the kind of solid information required to sort out rumour from reality.

Now an alliance of eight Mexican media outlets and civil society groups is courting potential whistle-blowers with a new digital platform that promises to protect the anonymity of sources with the help of sophisticated encryption software.

Mexicoleaks describes its mission as the construction of a “transparent Mexico” and participants say they hope it will help them to document political corruption, human rights abuses and other misuses of institutional and economic power.

“It is a tool we hope will facilitate independent journalism that is critical of institutional and de facto powers,” said Homero Campa of the leading investigative weekly magazine Proceso. “Lots of sources are frightened of reprisals.”

Campa said that within a day of the website’s launch on March 10 his magazine had received 10 tips, which were waiting to be evaluated with the help of a code of ethics designed to ensure only information that is in the public interest is used, and any investigations triggered are carried out with particular rigour.

Daily challenges
But the launch of Mexicoleaks has already highlighted the daily challenges facing even the country’s most high-profile journalists. Leading radio presenter Carmen Aristegui, whose reporting team has helped to expose a string of alleged abuses of power, was fired from her morning news show on Sunday after executives of the MVS radio station objected to her team’s participation in the Mexicoleaks alliance without its authorisation.

The project began as an initiative of the Amsterdam-based group Free Press Unlimited. It relies on software provided by a group called GlobalLeaks that is partially based on Tor encryption technology, and promises that uploaded information cannot be traced back to its source, even by participants in the alliance.

Albana Shala, of Free Press Unlimited, says the Mexican members of the project have received training in how to avoid inadvertent revelations that could lead to the identification of contributors, once they have the information in their possession.

The project also urges sources not to make themselves vulnerable by, for example, using a computer that can be traced to them in any investigation launched to identify where leaks originated. “The system might be foolproof, but people are not,” Shala said. “What is at risk is the life and trust of the whistleblower.”

Zones of silence
It is not only sources who are potentially at risk: the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the murder of at least 25 journalists and the disappearance of 13 in Mexico since 2000. The death toll is closer to 100 if laxer criteria are used that do not require confirmation that the journalists were targeted because of their work.

Lucía Vergara, of the press freedom group Article 19, said that the number of murders has decreased in recent years. But other kinds of attacks such as threats and harassment have grown dramatically to reach a total of 326 in 2014.

“This means the zones of silence are growing,” said Vergara, referring to the areas of the country where local media regularly censor themselves. “It means people are turning to anonymous posts on websites.”

Though Mexico’s many brutal drug gangs are regularly blamed for the terror that muzzles traditional and citizen journalism in many parts of Mexico, Article 19 says that organised crime has only been directly involved in about 10% of all the attacks on journalists. Public officials, meanwhile, account for about 40%. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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