Corpses, Cuba, Coquettes, and Clowns: An IAPA Notebook

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

When Juan Francisco Ealy Ortiz, director of the big Mexico City daily El Universal, reported on the state of Mexican press liberty to Inter American Press Association (IAPA) colleagues meeting in his home city Sunday, he called the nation not just a “paradox,” but a “complex paradox.”

It’s a good description for the state of Mexico’s press, which is enjoying more freedom to commit real journalism than it has in the past 100 years — and yet is suffering through an especially brutal period of violence at the hands of drug dealers and corrupt politicians.

Yet, complex paradox also captures much of the essence of an IAPA annual meeting almost anytime, but especially in one of my favorite city’s in the world — charming and confounding, sophisticated and silly, courtly and cold-hearted Mexico City.

Any IPA meeting triggers a certain cognitive dissonance. You sit for hours listening to “country reports,” the details of man’s inhumanity to journalists — kidnappings, murders, and death threats delivered by phone, by e-mail, by funeral wreath showing up in the newsroom — and then it’s time for a “coctel,” a cheery reception with music and laughs and, often at IAPA, elaborate entertainment. Once, six years ago, IAPA held its mid-year meeting in Cancun. I emerged from an especially dispiriting country report on Colombia, and straight into a resort town thronged with U.S. college kids on Spring break, wahooing, chugging and generally acting like all they really needed to learn they learned from a “Girls Gone Wild” tape. I never felt prouder of the flower of American youth.

There’s been nothing quite as jarring this time around, but there’s been plenty of material for a reporter’s notebook. So here goes:

Model Behavior

Latin American conferences, if they aspire to the big time, simply must feature comely young women dressed like the evening gown finale of the Miss Universe pageant — including sashes. Their ostensible function is to hand out pens or get documents or ring bells reminding delegates to move to the next event. Their chief function is to stand around looking smashing. IAPA’s 62nd General Assembly is no exception, and mirroring the competition among telecom companies that sustain ROP newspaper advertising here and in the U.S., the mobile phone companies have deployed a battalion of models among the publishers.

As if to perform a living tableau of this quaint tradition in the Digital Age, two young ladies in gowns were in the pressroom checking on their e-mail during a break. Their sashes — signifying they represented the Mexico City financial daily El Economist — dropped by their side.

Why Wait?

IAPA and Hugo Chavez’s administration in Venezuela don’t see eye-to-eye, to put it mildly. Venezuela’s vice president famously called IAPA a “latrine,” and all officials, from Chavez on down to a small-town mayor stiffed the organization this summer when it sent a delegation to investigate the many complaints of legal and extra-legal intimidation the government has loosed on the press.

Sunday, Venezuelan publishers and broadcasters blasted Chavez in the strongest terms, one publisher charging he uses “bands of Fascists, yes, Fascists” to cow the press. “In fact, (freedom of expression) is getting every moment more restricted by threats and aggression” by Chavez’s effectively one-party rule, says the draft country report on Venezuela.

But Chavez’s government didn’t wait around to respond. On Saturday, the minister of communications and information, William Lara, “refused in advance” any IAPA criticism, which he called “unfounded charges,” the Caracas daily El Universal reported.

Lara called the IAPA delegates “press capitalists, media owners or their representatives, their lawyers,” the paper reported. “Anyhow, they are journalists by no means,” he added.

News of the Weird, Mexico City Edition

El Grafico, the downmarket tabloid published by El Universal in Mexico City, reported that a woman told police she was approached by a couple who noticed she was pregnant and asked if she would like to buy some “baby perfume.” The woman says she sniffed the liquid, and the next thing she knew she was in a hospital bed and had apparently been given another drug to induce labor, because she woke up in the middle of giving birth in labor.

Wait, there’s more. The woman said there were two other pregnant women also strapped into hospital beds. The malefactors then drugged the women a third time, knocking her out. She came too in a forest as she was being dumped from their truck.

Police reported no suspects in custody as of Friday night.

All Kidding Aside

While the Venezuelan mouthpiece Lara may think himself clever portraying the typical IAPA delegate as a pampered fat cat looking to protect his bankroll more than his journalists, the fact is that there were no small number of delegates attending after receiving recent death threats.

Perfil magazine chain CEO Jorge Fonteveccin’s came just hours before he got on the plane to Mexico City. The e-mailed threat, just the most recent, repeated past pledges to kill the Argentinean publisher and his family if he didn’t back off criticism of the government. Guatemalan radio station owner and talk show host Oscar Rudolfo Castaneda was threatened while he was air. “I hope we don?t say when we meet in Cartagena six months hence that, oh, Oscar Rudolfo Castaneda was shot,” he said, demanding IAPA exert strong pressure against the government.

The Organization of American States special rappateur on press liberty issued an invitation for “any member who is under a death threat to meet with me here.”

Well at Least the Clowns Are Reading Us

This IAPA meeting has put a particular focus on the challenges wrought by Internet and the profound way it is changing the audience for newspapers. Some of those sessions were every bit as depressing as a grim country report. On a break, I walked outside the Camino Real hotel into the streets deserted on a Sunday afternoon. The only other person on the street was a clown, which in Mexico is certainly a character apart. Mexican clowns are exaggerated clowns, with makeup and costume that make Bozo look understated.

This “payaso” was all alone on the stoop of a shuttered store, reading a newspaper.

The street was named Liebnitz, after the German 17th century inventor of differential calculus.

De Mexico no hay otra. There?s no place like Mexico.

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