Opinion / Journalism
Ode to Central American Journalism

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Óscar Martínez

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I realized in recent weeks, after stepping away from Central America and its insufferable political class, that the pessimism lodged in the marrow of my bones has kept me from telling you something important, dear colleagues of this small corner of the world. I’ve already told you, in past columns, that the situation will only get worse, that you should warn your families, that you should make a plan for exile, that until you do, jail is a possibility, and for many, not merely a fear for the future but the fate they suffer today. I’ve told you the bad news, but I haven’t told you the good. So let me tell you now, in this first paragraph: You are the ones for the task. You’ve already proven it, and you already know who you are; the well-off know who they are too, but I don’t want to talk to them here.

In shadowy times like these, brilliant journalists like yourselves. 

“And your readers?” I was asked recently while on tour for my latest book. The readers: that group we know so little about, who we strive to understand. I answered in generalities: That I know there are many who love us very much, who read us often, who criticize us with insight and in good faith. That we love those readers. That we want more like them. That they embody the verbs that guide our work: to inform, to reveal, to prove, to verify, to explain, to doubt. But also, that they are not the norm. That among those who read us, there are those who detest us — in El Salvador most of all. That there are those who adore the dictator of the day, who believe with faith and hate with faith, who search desperately for miracles rather than construction among the ruins of a region that left them nothing. That there are those who refuse to admit that we are right no matter how many documents and audio recordings and photographs and sources and evidence we publish, who don’t hesitate to insult us on the street, and hesitate even less, of course, when hiding behind that mediocre exchange, that mock conversation, that we call social media. That in a certain way, journalism always implies loss — one person’s loss, many people’s loss, the loss of a country, the loss of a region. And that for journalists, winning is a dark secret always out of reach. How do we win doing this work? What do we win? Who knows? Certainly not me.

But we’ve spent years trying, because we started out young and overly romantic, believing in the power of the story and the importance of telling it, because between knowing and not knowing is an abyss that has swallowed Central America for decades. And after years, here, down in the abyss, we still believe in the importance of the story. Some of us still hold on to that fantastical, even naïve, conviction. Maybe we’re just stubborn.

I believe that we change things. I believe that we are an obstacle. But I also know that we don’t change anything as much as we would like to, as much as our reporting demands; and that the obstacle we’ve been —and continue to be— is one that the corrupt routinely overcome. 

But we don’t care —or at least we don’t let it paralyze us— and we strive to be even more of an obstacle. We edit our work three, four, ten times over, and we join forces so that we have a louder voice, and we translate our stories so that they reach more people, and we consult with lawyers so that we don’t give the powerful an excuse to put us where they’ve already put so many of our colleagues without cause: behind bars. We search for another source, and another, and another, and when they say they won’t give their names because they’re afraid, we look for another, and another, and another, until someone is brave enough or several people provide enough corroboration. And then, we look for another.

Conviction, uncertainty, method. Isn’t that what “the best profession in the world,” as Gabriel García Márquez called it, is made of?

And journalists in this cramped little stretch of the Americas have plenty of it all.

My ode to you comes from what I saw you do. This is what I saw you do.

In Nicaragua, when the emperor was stripped naked, when his gunmen shot students dead in the streets, when he imprisoned anyone who dared say murderer, massacre, repression — you didn’t leave, you stayed. You endured as much as you could, then you endured more, and you watched as dozens of people were stuffed into infamous dungeons, left to wither away for disagreeing with the unhinged couple who rule the country, and then, as your newsrooms were raided for reasons more pyrrhic than the noble regime itself. And then, when the choice was between wasting away in that darkness or leaving the country, you left, some of you in boats, to unknown destinations and down unknown paths, some with broken bones, carrying the pain of having left your brothers and sisters in prison. But you didn’t stop. You left so you could carry on. You left and you wrote. You left and you exposed. You left and you kept going.

In death-dealing Honduras, when they pushed out the narco-state and the presidency of criminals that governed it, you —some of you, especially— skipped the party, knowing that holding power never has much to do with simple fixes or snappy slogans; it’s about a commitment to the office. And you kept going. And now, as everything is being rearranged —or so it seems —you find yourselves, yet again, the subjects of scorn for refusing to celebrate what is at best a distant hope. You stayed, and you kept going.

In Guatemala, when that rabid and vengeful animal called the “justice” system turned its back on you and accused your fellow journalists, locked up one of your most emblematic, and condemned others to exile, you did not hide; you came out, you exposed the corruption of the politicians who control the animal that stalks you. You denounced the company that treats the military as its personal servant and Indigenous people as intruders on their own land. You said company, you said mine, you said soldiers, you said corruption. And once again, the animal trained to attack anyone who doesn’t crawl continues to pursue you, watch you, hunt you. It wants to bite. But you stayed, and you bit back.

In El Salvador, when the word exile came again to rest at the feet of a new tyrant —a man who wants everything for himself, who wants everyone to serve him, who thinks everyone else can go to hell— you exposed the truth, as the guild has rarely done in this country. You exposed corruption, theft, censorship, spying, pacts with criminals, nepotism, state violence, torture, persecution, lies. Exile. And when the man who wants all power for himself had quite enough and started fencing you in with his medieval edicts, giving himself the power to imprison you, to spy on you, to defame you, to renew his reign, some of you left the country to keep writing, to keep your families safe, to protect your colleagues, to finish your investigation, to publish your story; and there are those who came back and left again and came back and left again, who live there and live here, on sofas or borrowed apartments in Mexico City, in Guatemala, somewhere in Europe; or who rented places to hide and to write. You hid to keep going, not to stop. You went into exile to return, to finish. Or you didn’t leave, you stayed in your homes, you cared for your children, you put them to bed every night, thinking maybe this was the night they would come for you, for your family, but you put your kids to sleep and you wrote into the night, with fear, but not paralyzed by it. Fear is total only when there’s nothing left but fear. When there’s conviction, fear stays, but it bends and buckles.

You left and you stayed and you keep going and you bite back and you are an obstacle and you are changing things. And you don’t like any of it at all. And you keep going.

And I admire you, all of you, with devotion, with passion. And I’m grateful to be one of you, even though the worst is yet to come, even though our families suffer, despite the unease of just waking up or going to bed, despite the distance from a beloved brother and a worried mother and father.

This is the journalism I always wanted to do. You are the journalists I always wanted to be:

 

Those who know that it’s not about the applause.

Who refuse to bend the knee to power.

Who metabolize despair.

Who digest derision.

Who know the method.

Who always suspect.

Who always discover.

Who live with fear.

Who keep going.

You keep going.

*Translated by Max Granger


Óscar Martínez is a Salvadoran journalist and the editor-in-chief of El Faro.

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