In this week’s PEN Atlas piece, Lydia Cacho writes about the post-traumatic stress of being a persecuted journalist, and the media’s appetite for titillation rather than indignation

This is an edited and updated version of the piece ‘Reluctant Heroes’, which originally appeared in ‘Beyond Bars: 50 years of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee’, a special issue of Index on Censorship.

The first call is the one you never forget. The person uttering the death threat has spent days preparing for this moment – to let you know that your fate is sealed. Up until this phone call, or email, threats were something ethereal and alien, something that happened to other people.

Over time, I learned what many journalists and writers have learned before me: acquiring powerful enemies as a result of revealing deeper truths unsettles us and sets us apart from our colleagues and loved ones. Against our will the threats somehow become as important as the original story we wrote.

This dilemma dominates the rest of our lives, because for us to come through safely we need to be out there, in public, and never be silenced. At the same time, we have to always remain on guard, watching our backs, alert whenever we see a police or military patrol, reacting instantly to any sound resembling a gunshot, tensing every time a motorcycle accelerates or approaches, permanently on the lookout for a weapon in case the rider is a hitman. And on and on, we have to proclaim to the four winds, until we’re fed up with doing so – and everyone else is fed up with us too – the name of the mafioso, the politician, the policeman or the corrupt businessman who has put a price on our heads. Yet we yearn for the privacy and anonymity that would allow us to move around without being recognised, for those times when we used to have no need to conceal the names of our family members (for they are now vulnerable too).

As well as the threat of death, there is the threat of imprisonment. Many of my colleagues, from Iraq to Colombia, Cambodia to Kenya, have published memoirs that deal with post-traumatic stress they have suffered as a result of their experiences in jail. Once out of jail, there is the coming to terms with working and earning money, no longer now simply to feed our children, to pay for fuel and water, or for cinema tickets, but to pay lawyers in whose hands – like a small fish out of water – our provisional freedom rests. We spend years in courtrooms, gathering evidence and convincing witnesses to risk their lives by coming on board with us. Cases of defamation are regularly brought against us with the intention of exhausting us emotionally and financially. The courts become yet another weapon the mafia or corrupt politicians can use against us.

There are lessons to be learnt here. As more journalists become victims of the courts, those whose plight they are trying to expose also become victims. We must learn how to interview a victim without obliging them to relive their suffering. Let us learn to show compassion for those who dignify us with the confidence of their personal histories. Let us discover how to conduct investigations so that we do not hurt further those who have already suffered. Let us develop methods of inquiry that protect those victims (of war and the mafia, of natural disasters and domestic violence) whom we interview.

We need to learn to operate in a world where mainstream media has been captivated by the spectacle of cruelty, by a morbid fascination with pseudo-pornography of violence, in which there is no pain without blood. In the fabulous world of ratings, to survive and maintain one’s dignity is hardly good news. There are always those who demand drama: a few tears from the Mexican journalist who was tortured and imprisoned, then raped in order to ensure her silence, feeds the morbid desire for titillation, not for indignation.

In Uganda, the reporter whose hands were mutilated by the military in order to stop him ever writing again is asked to display his stump as if begging for pity. The media ask the Iraqi journalist to recount a hundred times over how US soldiers murdered her children to quell her voice, and how she herself washed their little bodies alone in her house. They insist the South African poet stops reading his verses of love and hope and instead relives the darkness of his cell, shows the camera the marks of the torture he has spent the last ten years trying to forget, and explains how the love of his family faded to the point where, one autumn afternoon, nobody at all came to visit him in prison. And they ask Anna the Russian female journalist – only two months before she dies – “Are you afraid that they’ll kill you? Have you ever thought what might become of your children?” To which she stoically replies, as one who recognises her struggle as moral as well as political must reply, that for as long as the lives of others are not secure, then neither is our own. Later, alone in her hotel room, she calms her sobs by burying her head in a feather pillow. In her dreams, she begs her children’s forgiveness and visualises a world in which those who tell the truth – about shameful acts of war and humanity’s incapacity to negotiate conflict, about the rapaciousness of the powerful, who use war to exterminate or for the acquisition of material goods – do not pay with their lives.

When I was abducted and incarcerated by corrupted police, during the 20-hour torture I kept thinking “if this is it and I will die at least I did what was right for the children I interviewed”.

I love being a journalist. I believe it is useful to society and I am proud of it, it’s a privilege to be able to publish my investigations and to stay alive. Our role as journalists is to push people beyond complacency; journalism is not about fame or ratings, is about offering an echo to the voices of otherwise voiceless people.  Every morning, I remember that if I do my job well I will help citizens acquire reliable, accurate information to make decisions in their community, and that is truly powerful; it makes me remember my job is meaningful and useful to society.

Lydia Cacho would also like to mention other journalists whose work helps to give voice to the voiceless:  

Carolin Emke from Germany, Amal Jumah Khamis from Palestine, Blanche Petrich, Lucía Lagunes from Mexico, Natasha Walter from the UK,  and Renee Nowtarger, photojournalist from Austria.

About the Author

Lydia Cacho is an award-winning author, journalist and women’s rights activist. Following the publication of her book on child pornography inMexicoin 2005, she was illegally arrested, detained and ill treated before being subjected to a year-long criminal defamation lawsuit. She was cleared of all charges in 2007 but has continued to be the target of harassment and threats due to her investigative journalism. In August 2012, she was forced to temporarily flee her native Mexico in the wake of particularly terrifying death threats.

In addition to her work as a journalist, she founded and directs the Refuge Centre for Abused Women of Cancun and is president of the Centre for Women’s Assistance, which aids victims of domestic violence and gender discrimination.

Lydia Cacho was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage in 2010.

About the Translator

Amanda Hopkinson has been active in Human Rights and literature throughout her life. Much of her writing has been concerned with and for, and influenced by publications on, human rights and freedom of expression. She has contributed, through writing, translating and editing, regularly to the magazine Index on Censorship. As an academic, she has been involved in establishing both Swansea and Norwich as ‘cities of refuge’, offering a haven to refugee writers. She has long supported the goals of PEN, a founding and enthusiastic member of PEN Writers in Translation committees, both in the US and UK, and is an active member of English PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee.

Launch of ‘Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking’

Published by Portobello Books: 6 September 2012

‘Illegal, inhuman, and impervious to recession, there is one trade that continues to thrive, just out of sight. The international sex trade criss-crosses the entire globe, a sinister network made up of criminal masterminds, local handlers, corrupt policemen, wilfully blind politicians, eager consumers, and countless hapless women and children. In this ground-breaking work of investigative reporting, the celebrated journalist Lydia Cacho follows the trail of the traffickers and their victims from Mexico to Turkey, Thailand to Iraq, Georgia to the UK, to expose the trade’s hidden links with the tourist industry, internet pornography, drugs and arms smuggling, the selling of body organs, money laundering, and even terrorism.’ 

English PEN will be co-hosting the launch of Lydia’s latest book Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking (translated by Elizabeth Boburg) and belatedly presenting her with her PEN Pinter Prize at the Free Word Centre on 29 August.  Please join us for what promises to be a fascinating discussion, and to show your support for Lydia.  Event details here.