Marco Lara is changing the way that crimes are reported to the public in order to protect human rights and professionalize the media sector in Mexico. Through the Program of Media and Access to Information of the Institute of Criminal and Procedural Justice, Marco has built a standard for communicating about crime, working with journalists, government officials, and the public in order to change perceptions about crime, victims, and the accused.
The New Idea
Marco Lara, a judicial reporter for 33 years, is changing the way all stakeholders discuss and report on crime in Mexico. His goal is stopping widespread “media trials” and decreasing media corruption in order to protect the basic rights of victims and those suspected of a crime. Media has historically served as a veil to cover the inefficiencies of the judicial system in Mexico, but Marco sees that it could instead function as a democratic check over political powers, elevating the quality of democracy in Mexico. To shift this paradigm, Marco is taking a multi-pronged approach: training journalists and other communicators as agents of social change; setting new standards for talking about crime; working with the government to ensure that corresponding legislation is put in place and implemented; and educating the public so that they can demand accountability.
At the core of Marco´s model is intensive work towards the professionalization of journalists and other communicators, in which Marco leverages his own experience in the field to find the right incentives for these actors to get involved. Another innovative component of Marco’s model is the creation of new regulation and communication policies around crime and victims of crime, as well as the revision of existing political and judicial communication policies, in order to ensure principles of rights, legality, transparency, and accountability. Marco is reversing the accusatory model of talking about crime, victims, and perpetrators, to instead protect victims and the accused from being publicly shamed.
While changing the way that journalists and other officials inform the public about crime, Marco and his team are simultaneously shaping a public that is critical of information they receive, urging society to question the public display of victims and the accused. More savvy consumers of information have the capacity to serve as a democratic counterweight to the news industry and public institutions.
Mexico´s judicial system is severely fractured. Less than 8% of crimes are reported, and of those, less than 1% result in a sentence. There is widespread mistrust in the system as well as (well-grounded) belief that it is unreliable and inefficient. As a strategy to counter these faults, journalists, the police, and law enforcement agents often exhibit crime victims and defendants in the media. The portrayal of those involved in crime tends to be criminalizing and discriminatory, yet what is not illustrated is the bureaucracy and corruption of the justice system itself. These “media trials” cover up institutional inefficiency, legitimize practices that violate individual rights, promote authoritarian security policies, reinforce social prejudices, and misinform and intimidate, contributing to collective inaction.
There are various elements that perpetuate this problem. First, judicial and crime journalists work in the most precarious conditions, as they are considered to be on the bottom rung of their professional ladder and are often less educated and less professionalized than their peers. Young journalists often do not even receive a salary, only a credential from the newspaper or magazine that recognizes them as part of the team. Mexico is one of the countries with the highest rates of violence against journalists, and in 65% of these cases of violence, the journalist is a state official. Journalists who cover crime and the judicial system are the most targeted of all. Because of their vulnerable position, police and other law enforcement officials are often able to lure these journalists into exhibiting victims and suspects in exchange for money. This close relationship between the journalists and agents has resulted in journalists being accessories to forced confessions and other unlawful practices.
Another component of the problem is the proximate relationship between media and politics in the country. Very few sources are independent from political power, and there is little real criticism of the State. Politicians and state institutions rely on media to make up for the impunity of criminals and a very inefficient judicial system. Through media trials, politicians “demonstrate” to the public that crime is being punished, exhibiting suspects before trial, violating their basic human rights and the presumption of their innocence. Also, because of this close relationship, the practice of media trials prevents judicial due process in that judges shy away from making a decision opposing one that the media has already made, either in terms of accusing a person or releasing them. Furthermore, there is a general perception that those who are exhibited by the media are guilty, have committed the crimes they are accused of, and that they are responsible for their condition.
In Mexico this serious issue has only been addressed at an academic level and in a disorganized and media-phobic manner that demonizes the work of media and journalists instead of understanding the root causes and proposing an answer. All actors involved -- journalists, state officials, government, and the public -- need to be engaged in order to advance a systemic solution.
For over a decade, Marco Lara Klahr has dedicated his professional efforts to changing the way crime is communicated to the public, using a strategy that involves all the main actors in the system. Marco´s strategy is based on four main aspects: professionalization of communicators and journalists; creation of a crime communication standard that adheres to the law and respects human rights; enacting legislation that stops the exhibition of victims and the accused; and development of a critical public.
First, Marco uses his own experience as a crime journalist and knowledge of the field to put in place the right incentives to make crime journalists interested in professionalization. Marco organizes workshops and trainings, in person and online, and has published handbooks and other resources to raise awareness about detrimental crime reporting practices. He organizes the trainings within other events where journalists gather, such as the Radio Bienal, or the Penal Reform Forum. Marco´s organization also coordinates workshops and has open calls for journalists to participate.
The workshops discuss the damage to due process and human rights violations caused by media trials and how judicial and political structures have allowed for these practices to be widespread. Then, the workshops offer new tools for journalism and communication with respect to legality, rights of victims and the accused, freedom of information and expression, social responsibility, and a culture of social peace. Marco understands the harsh conditions that the majority of crime journalists face and the danger that their profession entails, and offers through his interventions an opportunity to improve these conditions. Journalists who have knowledge of the law and understand the problem will be better prepared to stand against corruption, in turn increasing their own safety and permitting access to other job opportunities. Marco is also designing a diploma for journalism schools to develop journalists and communicators that see upholding human rights and the law as inseparable from the ethic of their profession.
To involve other stakeholders, Marco has developed a standard for crime communication, based on respect for presumption of innocence and the rights of victims. He uses this as a guide in his work with journalists but also with officials within government bodies that communicate about crime. Marco works with these government spokespeople in different ministries and institutions to set these guidelines in place so that pertinent crime-related information -- the schedule for open trials, for example -- is safely accessible to the general public. He is working towards the universal adoption of these guidelines across the country. Marco wants to change the power relationship of law enforcement officers and journalists, by changing the source of information from the field to open trials where journalists can get information without the need for extortion or bribes.
As an important part of his strategy, Marco has lobbied government bodies to set in place laws that will prevent the use of media trials and make these practices illegal and punishable. Marco and his team develop research, based on international experience, that feeds the social debate, and sets the foundation for such laws and other norms that are conducive to rights of institutional communicators, journalists, and the media, without inhibiting the rights of the citizens to free expression and access to information. Additionally, Marco is pushing the creation of a constitutional framework and legal doctrine that protects victims and the accused from being publicly shamed and punishes this practice by holding superiors accountable, securing the right to due process and victims’ anonymity. In March 2014, along with other representatives of the social sector in the country, Marco led a hearing before the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights to denounce Mexican authorities for the unlawful exhibition of victims and persons suspected of crimes. As a result, the President committed to establish guidelines of crime communication for government agencies, and the government of the Federal District (DF) modified its rules to prohibit press conferences where suspects and victims are presented.
Although the law is already in place in DF, its effective implementation and expansion to the rest of the country requires a public culture change – one where the public understands the issue and demands compliance. To this end, Marco is constantly releasing information and participating in interviews, conferences, and other public spaces where he raises awareness about the negative effects of media trials and unlawful crime communication practices (which have even been linked to an increase in torture), and partners with CSOs in the field of Human Rights and penal and judiciary reform to widen the reach and impact. He also has a blog and has written several books and other texts on the subject.
Marco has trained over 3,000 journalists and communicators, and on average, 4 out of 10 change their communication practices in the short term while 2 out of 10 stay away from media trials and exhibition permanently. Marco´s program isn´t so much about the numbers but about a framework change where all stakeholders start thinking about these practices as unlawful. Such a profound culture change requires time, and achieving a mindset and behavior shift in even this number of journalists is significant for the context. Although Marco has worked for over 10 years in this field, it has been in the last two years that efforts beyond the workshops and trainings have begun to be put in place and this more integral model has been set up. The change in DF´s policies and the promise made by the President offer a unique platform that has to be seized immediately if a real change is to be achieved. Marco has developed an 11 step “recipe” to replicate his model, and is reaching out to CSOs in other countries that are interested in implementing it, since he has understood this is a problem that is not unique to Mexico, but widespread across Latin America and other regions.
Marco works through a hybrid model and directs the Program of Media and Access to Information in the Institute of Criminal and Procedural Justice (a CSO) with a team of 2 people and he also leads Minimedia Otromexico, S.C., in which 12 total people work in Mexico City. The Media Program receives financial and operational support from the Institute, national and international organizations, and is additionally financed by Minimedia Otromexico which has its own source of income through workshops and conferences for public justice institutions, media communication, and schools of communication in the entire country.
Marco Lara Klahr comes from a Polish Jewish family that arrived in Mexico to escape WWII, and he grew up surrounded by highly educated people, but with few economic opportunities. At the age of 17, Marco began as a crime reporter where he learned about widespread corruption and the role that journalists play in the violation and exploitation of victims of crime and the accused. He realized that actors in public security, reporters, and many more are involved in this process, and that grave working conditions pushed many into unlawful practices. Having been raised with the memory of violence suffered by the Jewish community in WWII, he had a strong aversion to this behavior and set out to change it.
Marco holds a journalism degree from UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and has also studied law. He has worked as a journalist in 27 countries, in print, electronic, and virtual media. He has also led well-recognized projects for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the European Union, Open Society Justice Initiative, and the Hewlett Foundation, all targeted to the professionalization of journalists and the respect of Human Rights.
In 2012, Marco founded the Program of Media and Access to Information at the Institute of Criminal and Procedural Justice and Minimedia Otromexico, S.C., and currently serves as the director of both. He is the editor of presuniondeinocencia.org.mx, an advisory consultant for El Universal, and is the founder of the Mexican School of Writers. As a result of his experience in journalism and his work in social change, Marco is part of the team that prepares The Worlds of Journalism Study (University of Munich). In 2000 and 2009, he received the National Journalism Award for the categories of reporting and transparency, respectively, and also won the Walter Reuter German Journalism Award for his work with juries.