Mónica González Mujica: ‘Either journalists denounce crimes and atrocities or they become accomplices’
Mónica González Mujica, the laureate of the 2010 Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, is probably one of the most committed and tenacious journalists in Chile. She has made conscientious investigative journalism her real profession. After graduating from the University of Chile in 1971, she started working on the newspaper El Siglo and the magazine Ahora. The coup d’état that overthrew President Salvador Allende in 1973 and established the bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet forced her to go into exile in Paris, where she worked as an operator in a printing workshop.
She returned to Chile in 1978, but was not able to practise her profession again until 1983, when she started working for publications such as the magazines Cauce and Análisis. She uncovered several illegal real estate operations carried out by Pinochet with public funds, which led to a total of 26 charges against her. Although all charges were dismissed, she was sent to prison twice for refusing to disclose the identity of one of her sources. After occupying management positions in publications such as the daily newspaper La Nación and the magazine Siete+7, she has been the Chilean correspondent of the Argentinean daily newspaper Clarín since 1995 and has managed the Centro de Información e Investigación Periodística (CIPER) since May 2007. This journalism and investigation centre is a non-profit independent institution specialized in investigative reporting.
She has received many awards for her work, dedicated to defending freedom of the press, and has written the following books: Bomba en una calle de Palermo (Bomb in a street in Palermo) with Edwin Harrington, in 1986; Chile entre el Sí y el No (Chile between yes and no) with Florencia Varas, in 1988; Los secretos del Comando Conjunto (The secrets of the Comando Conjunto) with Héctor Contreras, in 1989; and La Conjura. Los mil y un días del golpe (The conspiracy. The thousand and one days of the coup), in 2000.
You are the laureate of the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. What does this award mean to you?
It is quite simply incredible. It is very moving but it is also an immense responsibility to live up to everyone’s expectations, to disappoint no one. I feel that such a prize is not an incentive to rest my laurels, but to continue working. My first thoughts are for my very many Chilean colleagues, famous or unknown, who opened this very important way with me and to whom tribute has never been paid. At a time when there were no elected representatives and when scarcely anyone raised their voices, we were the ones who offered the best journalism possible to tell those who wanted to listen and know what was happening in Chile. We were very afraid then, so I dedicate this prize to them, to all of them, as well as to their wives, their husbands, their loved ones and their children, who also suffered. I know that everyone of them will feel represented by this prize, which is also theirs.
What is your view of the media landscape in Latin America?
Two problems pose an increasingly urgent threat to the right of society to be informed. First, the formidable concentration of media ownership, which is also the case in the United States and Spain. In many countries we can see models, which lead to this consolidation of ownership. This is itself inseparable from another phenomenon: groups take control of several media companies thus consolidating television, radio and the written press, while they maintain interests in other sectors of production, such as agriculture, mining, services, real estate, etc. The result is a terrifying muzzling of information, because a media company cannot provide objective reporting on corporations of which its owner has shares. This is very serious. Journalists are losing their independence, their dignity and essential skills.
The second threat comes from authoritarian governments, which, although they came to power democratically, as was the case in Venezuela, make journalists their enemies and submit them to constant threats. Here, once more, there is unfortunately no opposition able to defend freedom of information properly. Because freedom of information is not about supporting the government or the opposition, it is about providing quality journalism. This threat is spreading to other countries, such as Nicaragua or Ecuador, where the president is starting to see journalists as his enemies. I think that this situation is very serious. Just as it is intolerable that organized crime cartels go to war on journalists, it is unacceptable for democratically elected governments to engage in authoritarian practices and do this. Add to this the concentration of ownership I spoke about earlier, and you get a media industry that is, objectively speaking, discouraging, and it shows the precariousness of journalism and this is having a deep effecting on society.
The problem does not only concern journalists; it is democracy as a whole that is undermined and weakened, because a badly informed citizen is easy prey to petty anti-democratic tyrants. Therefore, we who lived through dictatorships and who only recovered freedom at the cost of so many lives consider that we cannot let democracy get weak and be used by authoritarian powers again. Worst of all, this is taking place amidst total indifference.
Three years ago, you founded the Centro de Información e Investigación Periodística (CIPER). Can you explain to us the purpose of this journalism and investigation centre and how it works?
The centre was created three years ago in order to practise investigative and analytical journalism. We are not a news agency, as what interests us is not so much the news as its context, its origin and above all its effects on society. We try to analyse complex facts. We do not rule out any subjects. Our only limit is people’s private lives, except if we discover that public funds are used to support lovers or mistresses or to abuse minors, or when people who set themselves up as guardians of morality and values do exactly the opposite of what they preach in their private lives. Furthermore, we think that there is an ever-growing attraction for trivia in our societies, for ‘miracle remedies’, which is terrible and perverse. This helps pull the wool over people’s eyes and give them the impression that they know everything, while all they get is gossip. Meanwhile, everything that is really important is taking place behind their backs, because the media do not speak about it.
In your opinion, what is the situation of investigative journalism today?
It is without any doubt the type of journalism most severely under attack everywhere. Investigation was the first victim of the economic crisis, and it was the most expensive journalists that were laid off first, those who are dedicated to investigation. Furthermore, it is this type of journalism that is often a source of problems and conflicts for media corporations. As a result, the crisis is a wonderful excuse to get rid of the desk best equipped to investigate the real, pressing issues that are decisive for the lives of citizens. The media thus avoid creating problems for themselves, whether with governments or organized crime organizations, and, above all, with the advertising companies that financially support them.
However, I must stress that the quality of investigative journalism in Latin America is at least as high as that of investigative journalism in English-speaking countries. And not only today, because we also did this type of work under a dictatorship. In Chile, for example, journalists denounced the crimes of the dictatorship running incredible risks. We earned very little, but under such a regime there is no other possible choice: Either journalists denounce crimes and atrocities or they become accomplices. And it is true that investigative journalism always involves great personal sacrifices and the use of the journalist’s own funds, because, let’s face it, no media organization will pay journalists for months so they can carry out an in-depth investigation into an issue and reveal it to the world.
Basically, I think that journalism today is facing a major challenge, which is not limited to the defence against threats to life, like in Mexico, where five journalists have already died this year, in Honduras, where there have been no fewer than six deaths, and in Colombia, where organized crime and paramilitary mafias, which comes down to the same thing, are constantly threatening journalists. The problem is that these drug cartels are eroding our societies. Their final objective is to deprive us of pleasure, happiness and life. This is why it is so important to attack them, and it is also why it is so important to guarantee that journalists can investigate and inform, contrary to the current practice in most Latin American countries.
What do you consider as your greatest professional success?
The most important accomplishment for me was to be able to go from dictatorship to democracy without giving up journalism. I never gave it up during the dictatorship, not in jail, not under torture, not when my friends were killed, or when I had to be separated from my daughters, or when I shared the pain of so many people in this country. When democracy came, I felt that there was so much to build. What I did right was not to give up journalism, I found a new way to continue every time I was unemployed. I managed to do this thanks to the assistance of many people - I am not a Superwoman. I am grateful to have met people who supported me and encouraged me to persevere when I was the most afraid. In this profession, you are put to the test every day and I want this to go on until I die.
Do you think that this Prize can help, in one way or another, put the spotlight on colleagues experiencing difficulties in other countries in Latin America?
Today, the real heroes are in Colombia, in Mexico, in Honduras, in Guatemala, in Venezuela and in Chile. For me, the most heroic journalism is the one which informs every day, which knows neither set working hours nor weekends, because its aim is for citizens to be able to get on with their lives starting the very next day. We design roadmaps for citizens, which are sometimes traced in blood, pain and fear.
What I would really like is for this prize to help ordinary citizens understand that journalists are human beings and that we need to work in respect and dignity.
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