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War wounds: the struggle of Mexican journalists

Threats, violence and murder by drug cartels

Journalists protest the murders and kidnappings of their colleagues in Mexico leaving photos outside the Ministry of the Interior (all photos courtesy Knight Foundation via Flickr)

Over the past decade, University of Toronto psychiatry professor Anthony Feinstein has interviewed hundreds of international war correspondents to assess their mental health.

Still, nothing prepared him for the gruesome tales he heard from Mexican journalists about drug-related bloodshed on home soil.

“It’s a very violent environment. Tens of thousands of Mexicans have died, and the cartels have silenced many journalists through murder and intimidation,” says Feinstein, who is also director of the Neuropsychiatry Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Mexico is widely considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism. Last year, more than 170 writers around the world, incuding Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Chinua Achebe, Colm Toibin and Toni Morrison signed an open letter to the journalists and writers of Mexico "calling out for the killing, the impunity, the intimidation to stop". And Renu Mandhane, director of the Faculty of Law's International Human Rights Program travelled to Mexico as part of an international delegation led by John Ralston Saul asking the government to uphold its legal responsibilities to protect journalists. (Read Mandane's account of the experience.)

crowd of protesters in MexicoIn the first study of its kind, Feinstein found that Mexican reporters covering drug trafficking have as much or more mental distress than war journalists. One in four journalists suffers from mental health problems. Almost half the journalists surveyed know of a colleague murdered by drug cartels and it is not uncommon for reporters' families to be threatened or injured.

“They can’t escape the conflict, unlike war correspondents who can get a break,” says Feinstein, whose previous research changed the way big news organizations prepare and care for war correspondents.

After revealing that war journalists had rates of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression far exceeding that of the general population, CNN asked Feinstein to lead newsroom educational sessions for journalists about to be deployed and help provide counselling for people returning from the field. He has also helped the BBC, Reuters, CBC, and the Globe and Mail.

His website, www.conflict-study.com, is a resource for journalists suffering from work-related trauma.

But Feinstein hasn’t yet persuaded Mexican news organizations to act.

“It’s going to be very challenging to convince them to take this issue more seriously,” he says, adding it’s his fervent hope that Mexican journalists get the help they so desperately need.

See more stories from Medicine in the latest issue of U of T Medicine Magazine.