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Sportswriter At The Barricades
An interview with Jaime Medina
W hile the turmoil in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca was in the headlines last fall for weeks, little media coverage noted that at its center was a crusading newspaper, Noticias. The paper’s leading sportswriter, Jaime Medina, is also a spokesperson for the teachers, doctors, nurses, newspaper workers, and others in the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), who joined together to call for greater democracy. I interviewed Medina in November in northern Mexico.
BACON: What’s it like being a reporter in Oaxaca?
MEDINA: I starting working for Noticias 23 years ago and all those years I covered sports. I’m not really an activist. I got involved in this current struggle because it is for something just and because we’re defending our paper and our rights. I hope to eventually go back to just writing and photographing sports. Nevertheless, this has been a very memorable experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Why did your newspaper become the center of social protest?
The newspaper has been fighting government persecution because it’s the only independent newspaper in the state. A lot of papers work with the government, which controls what is printed. That’s not the case with us. We report on what we feel is necessary. Government persecution began when former Governor Jose Nelson Murat tried to buy control of our paper. When he couldn’t do it, he suspended government ads, but we continued to function with private ads. Then Murat ordered an invasion of the newspaper’s warehouses.
Before Murat left office, we were publishing articles about corruption in Murat’s administration. That did not mean that the newspaper was against the government, it was simply writing about an Administration that was taking advantage of its position.
While the present Governor Ulises Ruiz was giving his inaugural speech, officials once again raided the newspaper’s warehouses. Still we managed to survive. I think Ruiz also managed federal aid to the poor for his own benefit. That is one reason why the people want to crucify him now. Noticias has always been critical of the government, all the while just giving the facts. That is why we’ve been on the government’s bad side.
Why didn’t the union defend you?
We belong to a union known as CROC [Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Farmers]. These labor organizations are very common in México. Their purpose more than anything is to protect employers and the government. Usually when an employee complains, they are fired without the union even getting involved.
When the attacks on us began, it had been nine years since we’d had any communication with the union. Many workers didn’t even know who the leaders were. In nine years we never had a union meeting. The local CROC leader is a member of the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution [PRI]. He is so close to state PRI leaders that he was given a position as deputy in the state legislature. [The PRI was Mexico’s ruling party for 70 years, until it was defeated nationally in 2000. The PRI still governs Oaxaca.]
When the newspaper took an independent approach to reporting, CROC wasn’t in agreement?
Of course not. The PRI was used to operating in a closed-door fashion with little interference from outside. The union violated our rights by not taking our opinion into account when they were supposed to be protecting us.
After Ruiz became governor the union contract at Noticias came up for renegotiation and the state government sought to use this to close down our newspaper. The union announced it had made a decision to strike. No one asked for our opinion. Even though we were unhappy with our pay, we saw the game the union was playing and we didn’t want any part of their decision to strike.
On the day it began, CROC leaders came in with military personnel dressed as civilians. I saw them coming through both entrances. I left because I was afraid of being hurt. There were more than 300 people that came in to take over. Thirty-one of my coworkers stayed behind to print the paper. Other reporters were still finishing up last minute stories. The newspaper’s editor and assistant editor also stayed behind. They were basically kidnapped. We could see them through the windows as they were being assaulted. They were there 31 days and on July 18, 2004 they were let go by the military personnel inside, but beaten once again on their way out.
How did they survive 31 days?
The people in the neighborhood saw the injustice being done and gave them food through open windows. The military’s intention was to stop the paper from printing, but workers were able to get two more editions out. The military blocked the exits that second day, but we were able to rent space from another paper in the neighboring state of Veracruz.
Even though it was very expensive to produce, the newspaper was being printed daily and people were waiting for it. The newspaper would arrive in Oaxaca between one and three in the afternoon. People would form lines to buy it. We, the workers, were very thankful to the people of Oaxaca because they helped us survive.
Why did the conflict with the teachers arise during the same period Noticias was being attacked?
Oaxaca is a tourist state so the cost of living is very high. The teachers had been asking for a pay increase for many years. Ruiz said that if the federal government wanted to give the teachers more, that was up to them, but the state didn’t have any more to give. So in May 2005 the teachers decided to strike and they took up residence in the plaza at the center of town.
The federal government is always raving about its educational system, but in rural parts of Oaxaca, a typical school consists of four poles and palm leaves for a roof. Students sit on rocks, logs, or anything else they can find. A typical teacher earns about 2,200 pesos [about $220] every 2 weeks. From that they have to purchase chalk, pencils, and other school supplies.
So there was a lot of anger among teachers?
I don’t think it started that way. They asked for what they needed, but the government’s denial infuriated them. When they decided to strike the first time, they almost didn’t complete the 2005-2006 school year. But the teachers have such a love for their students and profession, they decided to finish the term. That year they stopped the strike. But then the government tried to force them to do the same during the following spring. The teachers refused.
On June 14 the government sent in the military to force them out of the main plaza. Two helicopters dropped tear gas and Molotov cocktails from above. This made all labor unions and organizations throughout the state unite in one organization, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca [Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca]. They came to the teachers’ rescue and they were able to continue to occupy the plaza. They all agreed that they wanted Ruiz to resign his post as governor. Protestors put up barricades blocking entrances to the plaza for fear that they would be attacked, as they had been in the past.
What was Noticias doing during this time?
Noticias was reporting the truth, unlike other papers in the state. Radio stations wouldn’t allow the teachers time to state their demands and the reasons for their actions because the stations were basically under government control. So the teachers first took over Channel 9, and then others.
Meanwhile, they were being assaulted and shot at by police in plain clothes. Finally a U.S. journalist [Brad Will from Indymedia] was killed. He was covering the story in Santa Lucia del Camino, a neighboring town, when demonstrators were fired on. Protesters defended themselves with rocks and sticks. After that, federal police were called in.
First they sent in the Marines and the Army—3,500 officers arrived to take over the plaza. They said they would come in peacefully, but they came with tear gas, water, and pepper spray, and attacked the residents who were protecting the teachers. When the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) reached the center of town, the confrontation turned violent. Protesters held off tanks with rocks and sticks, the only arms they had against guns. During this confrontation, a nurse was killed when he was attacked with tear gas. When federal officials came in to Channel 9, a 16-year-old protester was killed. All told, since the attack on the plaza on June 14, 16 people have been killed, the majority teachers. Not one government official.
Were Noticias journalists or photographers subject to reprisals from the government during this time?
A fellow journalist, Luis Ignacio Velasquez, and two others are fighting charges of defamation of character and libel. I’ve been singled out by the government for supposedly overstepping my boundaries. We’ve been persecuted and four of my coworkers have been assaulted. But we have been successful in obtaining something that has never been obtained by a group of journalists in Latin America. The Human Rights Commission of America told the federal government to protect us and take responsibility for our lives. Unfortunately they still haven’t guaranteed us protection.
Now we’re based on Independence Street in front of La Merced Church where we’ve already faced aggression from the state government. About a month and a half ago, two armed individuals came in and fired guns. Four workers were injured. One worker still has a bullet lodged close to her heart.
But you continue to publish?
I think we’ve overcome the most difficult and violent battle. The challenge now is to keep staying true to our stories and maintaining the newspaper. We also have to keep fighting for our constitutional rights and pressure the pro-government union to give us back our offices. We are in the process of trying to form our own independent union as well.
This country is experiencing many problems with our ability to freely choose our government. Felipe Calderon [the newly swornin president of Mexico] is not recognized nationally because of the way he came into power [there were many charges of election fraud and no full recount of the ballots]. It was the same with Ruiz. It sometimes seems like Oaxaca and southern Mexico aren’t even part of Mexico, the way they’re ignored by the federal government until some big crisis erupts.
Since the days of the revolution, Oaxaca has been in the forefront of change and a picture of things to come. People here are not looking to win or lose, but to improve their way of living. I think that if it means Ruiz resigning for the good of his people, then he should resign. Something has to give.
David Bacon is a freelance reporter and photographer based in California.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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