Murder and Mayhem

Another Mexican journalist has been gunned down. What is so depressing is that his murder took place on World Press Freedom Day. Carlos Ortega Samper, a lawyer and writer for the daily El Tiempo de Durango, was known for his critical reporting on local government corruption and had reportedly been threatened by local officials a few days before he was killed. On 3 May, he was driving home when four unidentified men pulled him from his car and, after a heated argument, shot him three times in the head. According to PEN, just days before Ortega had criticised poor hygiene standards in a local abattoir. Then, on 2 May he claimed that that the town mayor and another local official had threatened him over the article and that he was investigating allegations of corruption by a local policeman. Chillingly, he added that these three men should be held responsible if anything happened to him.

Mexico is now one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as an investigative journalist. Sadly, Ortega’s killing is one of many brutal acts of intimidation causing a pervasive sense of fear and self-censorship amongst media workers. Governments, state agents, and local officials, may not always like what is written about them but murder is the ultimate form of censorship.

Thankfully, there is less chance of that happening to the journalists involved in a similar story gathering momentum in Romania. A recent article in the New York Times tenuously links the presence of Smithfield Foods, Inc. in Romania to the H1N1 flu. (A Mexican hog farm jointly owned by Smithfield, in La Gloria, Veracruz, was at the centre of a recent investigation into the possible link between pigs and the new strain of influenza in humans).

The Romanians are understandably miffed at intimations that the flu pandemic may have originated in their country. Initially the Mexican press, and some officials suggested, that an Asian source was the most likely culprit for what was originally referred to as the swine flu virus. Following the piece in the New York Times, the finger of blame is now pointing towards Eastern Europe. Smithfield’s controversial pig factories are currently the biggest producer of pork in Romania. According to the New York Times: ‘swine fever swept through three Romanian hog compounds in 2007, two of which were operating without permits. Some 67,000 hogs died or were destroyed, with infected and healthy pigs shot to stanch the spread.’ This article, together with Romanian news reports, seems to have sent government officials into over-drive.

As you may have guessed from my name, I have a familial link with the country. I know, from personal experience,  how much Romanians like their meat and, where the faint-hearted might blanch, they tend to relish cooking and eating every single part of an animal. I can imagine how the opportunity for a seemingly endless supply of cheap pork and salami would have been too mouth-watering for them to pass by; they would have welcomed Smithfield with open arms. Judging by the New York Times piece, though, they are now suffering the consequences of selling their souls to one of the giants of American agribusiness.

The plot thickens, but for those convinced that the US pork producer is in some way responsible for the spread of swine flu to humans, this will add grist to the mill. In addition, I suspect that there will be scenes of mayhem in Romanian ministries for some days to come. Hopefully, other than the possibility of positive change for the pigs and local communities, that’s all this expose of pig farms and ‘manure lagoons’, will provoke.

In Mexico, a journalist can get killed for writing about poor hygiene standards in a local abattoir. Romania has its fair share of problems regarding freedom of expression* but thankfully shooting the messenger isn’t one of them. Probably the worst that journalists writing about poor hygiene in Romania’s pig farms can expect is some gentle admonishment  from the health minister.  He has taken pains to point out that ‘not accidentally the owner of New York Times is a Mexican cement giant, who took over this newspaper three months ago’. This is a sly dig  at Mexico’s wealthiest businessman, Carlos Slim, and his 10% stake in the newspaper.

*On 11 June 2008, the Constitutional Court of Romania rejected a measure that would have required broadcasters to air “good news”. God knows who proposed this incredible legislation, but the idea was that television and radio stations would be required to devote at least 50% of their news output to positive stories.