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Oaxaca — the news is not the reporters

10 April 2007

I don’t think Rebecca Romero is quite the story the Narco News thinks. John Gibler’s report is factually correct:

The Associated Press fired Oaxaca state correspondent Rebeca Romero due to pro-government bias in her coverage of a six-month-long protest movement that sought to oust the state governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, according to AP reporters familiar with the agency’s work in Mexico.

Ms. Romero, a former press secretary for the Mexican federal attorney general, also owns an electronic news agency, ADN Sureste (Southeast Digital News Agency). ADN Sureste ran paid advertisements for the Oaxaca state government while Ms. Romero was reporting on the government’s involvement in the conflict, in violation of the AP’s Code of Ethics

According to AP reporters familiar with the agency’s work in Mexico, however, the AP fired Ms. Romero as a result of her coverage of the Oaxaca conflict.

Ms. Romero confirmed that she is no longer writing for the AP.

The Narco News went, it seemed, on a crusade to have Romero removed from her post based on a “technicality”:

At the time of her reporting, Ms. Romero received payments from the state government for advertisements on her website.

The AP may have a contractual rule against this, but I can’t think of a single small paper that doesn’t take government advertising, anywhere. If it wasn’t for the County legal notices, there probably wouldn’t be any newspapers out where I live. And, in Mexico, where the government is usually the only secure source of ad revenue, there’s not much choice. What Narco News did catch on to (and what a lot of OTHER people – including some astute foreign journalists in Oaxaca caught on to) was the real problem

Throughout the six-month conflict Ms. Romero’s reporting evidenced disdain for the protest movement, sensationalizing and misreporting acts of protester property destruction and violence, while failing to report on the state government’s involvement in the killing of protesters, which was widely reported on in the national press.

Unconfirmed rumors (nothing more) had Ms. Romero taking payments in return for flattering, or at least non-damaging, stories about the State government during the Oaxaca crisis, but from the sound of them, it is more likely people just took her continued advertising revenue as a bribe. 

Blessed are the not-for-profits, for they can afford the luxury of absolutist regulations … ADN Sureste, and the Associated Press are profit-making businesses.  Heck, I’ve had to trim my reporting… and be very cautious in my wording … on things written for the Big Bend Sentinel (a story too sensitive for the Alpine Avalanche, since it could conceivably damage reputations or cause problems for local worthies).  

Oscar Wilde said “the truth is never pure, and seldom simple.”  And that’s especially true with the news biz… and doubly-true with Oaxaca.  The low-rent correspondent, who like me and Oscar depends on writing to eke out a living (though I think that’s the only time all three of us will appear in the same sentence), writes for the very conservative Canadian press, but manages to get a good point in his own take on Romero’s firing (or, “termination of services”):

…everything is being presented as good vs. evil. APPO = good and Ruiz = bad. How about seeing some shades of gray? Ruiz is bad. (Perhaps evil is a better word.) But does that make APPO the good guy?

I’m checking out of this mess. It’s just bizarre. Teachers go on strike for the 25th consecutive year – and are lauded as heroes. APPO protests cripple the state’s tourism-based economy, but they’re supposedly the good guys. Ruiz acts like a troglodyte and … he deserves all of his bad press.


Brad Will’s murder aside, the reporters are not the story. Sometimes it’s the gifted amateurs who are hitting on the nuances. Barbara Lopez, a community organizer from San Francisco, wrote for the alternative weekly Beyond the Chron after her return from her native Oaxaca:

Oaxacans are critical of APPO (the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) or the coalition of groups seeking change, as the last eight months have been painful.

Currently, APPO is having reflective meetings to make decisions on its agenda and membership. These meetings are extremely critical. While there are very positive elements to APPO such as the Indigenous rights group and NGO’s, APPO has also included very violent elements such as anarchists from the U.S., Mexico City, and Puebla and many street children and drug users who are rightfully angry, but whose actions have hurt the movement.

Indymedia reporter Brad Will’s death had a huge impact on many people. It is also seen by the pro and anti-APPO elements as a turning point where Governor Ruiz could now bring the Federal Preventive Police as an excuse to repress. An American death has more value than thirty Mexican ones, even in Mexico. Some of our APPO-involved family friends fled for a few months.

Huge sweeps took place where innocent people were taken to a prison in Nayarit. The repression is still very strong, with police at every corner of downtown. Regardless of their opinion of APPO, Oaxacans don’t like the Governor – Ruiz or Ortiz. Ruiz and his predecessor – Murat – have taken corruption to new lengths, stealing million and millions of pesos from the Oaxacan people.

However, Ruiz’s ouster will be complicated because even though he is a member of PRISTA [sic – PRI], he is aligned with PAN – President Felipe Calderon’s party – so the federal government doesn’t want him out. Those who do want him out include the PRD and even his own PRI party – in the shape of the former governor, Jose Murat Casab, who are thought to be partially funding APPO.

Obviously, the situation is much more complex than Romero, Narco News, the AP, IndyMedia and Brad Will (and — in this case — needlessly cruel detractors of APPO’s foreign supporters) think. 

Or, maybe simpler.  Prensa Latina, which I know very well is the mouthpiece for the Cuban Communist Party, actually manages to print “straight news” when it fits their overall needs (same as the capitalist press).  Something they picked up last week suggests what’s at the root of all this is just that Ruiz is — as the Low Rent Correspondent said — a “troglodyte”: 

Mexico, Apr 5 (Prensa Latina) Aimed at improving his image to the media, the governor of Oaxaca state in Mexico, Ulises Ruiz, has spent millions in a self-advertising campaign, it was denounced here.

According to a recent report by the state Executive Power Public Account Office, the Ruiz administration paid out nearly 8.1 million dollars in 2006 only to advertise his public image.

That campaign has been considered the most ostentatious in local history ever, as it represents nearly 2.3 million dollars over the budget authorized by the state Congress.

Lenin Lopez, representative of the Democratic Revolution Party, called the amount granted by the local government to publicity stunt offensive and humiliating, when the Secretariat for Indigenous Affairs only received 4.2 million dollars in a region where most of the population is of native origin.

The advertising move through local media aims to give an image of governability in Oaxaca, after the political, social conflict from May 2006 to January.

Between Barbara Lopez and Prensa Latina, I think we’re getting closer to the truth. Lopez noted that the APPO was capable of violence, and that there were some violent elements, but that the violence was more anarcho-punks or personal vendettas. It doesn’t make sense that Brad Will was killed by the APPO (and the evidence strongly suggests otherwise), but there are credible — and very disturbing — reports of violence from the Governor’s backers.

I suppose a Massachusetts priest and physics professor could write fiction, but I don’t see why he, an architect (torture victims don’t usually invent their wounds), the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, a wounded Milenio reporter, and other reliable sources , both foreigners and Mexicans and the Mexican Senate would be in cahoots. Or why disappeared people haven’t reappeared. (A report in today’s Noticias de Oaxaca suggests the Calderón administration is using techniques meant for fighting narcos and “terrorists” in Colombia against protesters in Oaxaca.  Those techniques are said to include death squads. 

Yes, there is still that pesky teacher’s union issue (today, the Oaxaca state government said they won’t recognize the dissident SNTE 59, only the official local 22… which is guaranteed to bring more trouble) and the little matter of the governor’s outright mismanagement of the State budget… and… what everyone has ignored, and what I only ran across by accident… the never resolved issue of resource control. 

I found this buried in a French-Canadian business news wire report… 

VANCOUVER, BC, March 20 /CNW Telbec/ – Continuum Resources Ltd

(TSX-V: CNU) is pleased to announce that it has significantly increased it’s already large land package covering the historically-important Natividad gold district in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.


A total of 5,300 hectares of additional lands have been acquired by staking, bringing Continuum’s total contiguous landholdings in the district to 54,653 hectares.

If we’d all stop worrying about the existential meaning of Journalism, or the type of tourists who are showing up in Oaxaca these days, and start paying attention to facts, and witnesses and doing a little digging, we might find the story is the same one it was last summer — an administration, using violence to maintain control while selling out its citizens and selling off its patrimony.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. journalist permalink
    10 April 2007 10:32 am

    There seems to be a side issue here of axe-grinding (i.e. the terming of nonprofit media as “absolutist” and money making media as not having the luxury). But Gibler’s report doesn’t hit AP or Romero for selling ads to the Oaxaca government. It simply points out that Romero, when writing for AP, failed to disclose her conflict.

    You may think that is splitting hairs. I see it as holding an institution (AP) accountable to its own rules. That is exactly why Romero was fired: because the AP ethics code says its reporters must disclose conflicts (or even “appearance of conflict”), no matter how small.

    If Narco News had not focused on what you call a “technicality,” Romero would still be distorting with an AP byline. In that sense, it was a “surgical strike.” Rhetoric – or pointing out bias – has never removed a corrupt reporter. But a technical knockout is still knocks the boxer out of the ring. Didn’t Narco News also get AP’s guy in Bolivia removed that way, too? The bottom line is that they won the case. And as with legal cases, it often is the “technicality” that decides the law.

  2. 29 April 2007 1:42 pm

    Technicalities aside, the reason Romero was maddening was her biased reporting and the damage it inflicted because nearly every small town in America uses the AP wire service. The APPOs (and anarchists that attach themselves to the APPO) are not saints but the streets weren’t running with blood either. Any blood was let by the government thugs and porros. Otherwise, there are plenty machinations to go around.

  3. 23 July 2007 12:23 pm

    Brad Will was not really a reporter. He was volunteering, not getting paid, was in Oaxaca on a tourist visa, and was clearly biased for the APPO. He had a history of getting involved supporting the underdog, God bless him, and the irony is he was most likely killed by APPO thugs.


  1. Women of Color Blog » The Gray Spots of Oaxaca

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