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For Indigenous Reporters, Covering Protests, Land Disputes Can Lead to Arrest

FILE - An indigenous woman takes part in a protest to demand the resignation of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, in Guatemala City, Nov. 24, 2020.

For nearly three months Anastasia Mejía, a radio journalist and a member of the Maya K’iche’ indigenous group in Guatemala, has been under house arrest.

The director of local broadcaster Xol Abaj Radio and Xol Abaj TV, who covered protests over alleged corruption by the municipal Joyabaj government, was arrested September 22 as she walked down a street with her son.

When police stopped Mejía, they asked for her identification card but did not explain why she was being arrested, Dánae Vílchez, Central America correspondent at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told VOA. Instead, police asked their superiors how they should proceed and were told to take her to a police station. Two hours later, Mejía appeared before a judge.

Mejía was charged with sedition, aggravated attack, arson and aggravated robbery for participating in a protest. But press freedom groups say the journalist was there only to report on unrest.

Latin America has a rapidly growing movement of indigenous journalists who are championing indigenous rights violated by the state, corporations and gangs, said Avex Cojti, community media program manager at Cultural Survival, an indigenous people’s advocacy organization. But, she said, the criminalization of indigenous journalists in countries such as Guatemala is commonplace.

“They become targets of all these powers, including the government, corporations and other factions that have power within the country,” Cojti told VOA.

Coverage of protests over land rights and resources, or confrontations between state security and demonstrators, is often what leads to a journalist landing on the radar of local authorities, said Natalie Southwick, Central and South America program coordinator at CPJ.

Because indigenous journalists report on “hot-button issues,” Southwick said, they risk being “lumped in with people that have been involved in some of these actions, even though they're there in their capacity as journalists trying to keep their communities informed.”

The Embassy of Guatemala in Washington, D.C., did not respond to VOA’s emails requesting comment.

Blocked from reporting

Mejía’s next hearing is scheduled for January. The terms of her house arrest don’t explicitly ban her from working, but restrictions on her movement and activities make it harder for the journalist to engage in the type of reporting she'd normally be doing, Southwick said.

Such restrictions are a tactic that media rights groups have seen used against journalists who cover land disputes and protests in Guatemala and elsewhere. The method not only affects reporters, but it also cuts off a news source on issues that are often underreported or not presented in local context, these groups say.

FILE - Protesters walk through the streets of Ottawa, Ontario, on Feb. 24, 2020, in support of a small group fighting construction of a natural gas pipeline on indigenous lands in British Columbia.
FILE - Protesters walk through the streets of Ottawa, Ontario, on Feb. 24, 2020, in support of a small group fighting construction of a natural gas pipeline on indigenous lands in British Columbia.

In Canada, journalists covering land disputes and environmental issues that involve First Nations communities have found themselves arrested or facing orders that block them from reporting.

Karl Dockstader, co-host of the radio show "One Dish One Mic," was arrested in September and charged with criminal mischief and failure to comply with an injunction. At the time, the member of the Oneida Nation had been covering demonstrations against a housing development on what protesters say is indigenous land.

Dockstader – who with his co-host, Sean Vanderklis, was awarded a CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship – was initially barred from going to the site of the protests. That restriction was later lifted and in December the court withdrew the case against him.

Similar charges were also leveled at Melissa Cox, a documentary filmmaker from the United States who was arrested at an indigenous rail blockade in British Columbia in February, and reporter Justin Brake, who was arrested in 2016 for breaking an injunction against demonstrations over a hydroelectric dam project in Labrador, according to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

Charges against both were also later dismissed.

Ian McLeod, a spokesperson for Canada’s Department of Justice, said injunctions were issued at the discretion of the independent judiciary and that the journalists’ arrests were not under the Department of Justice’s authority. He added that Canada is committed to freedom of the press.

“A free-thinking, independent and respected media is the cornerstone of any democracy,” McLeod told VOA via email. “That is why Canada continues to defend press freedom and condemn all attempts to stifle the press.”

The Ontario Court of Justice, which oversees the jurisdiction that heard Dockstader’s case, told VOA it could not comment on the use of injunctions and conditions of arrest orders.

Missing perspectives

Indigenous journalists play an important role, said Oscar Baker, an indigenous freelance journalist from the Elsipogtog First Nation.

“Most Canadians don't really realize the histories of the land that they're living on,” said Baker, who has reported for Canadian outlets including CBC and the Toronto Star. “Communities are at a disadvantage because of the kind of colonial policies that still exist throughout the country.”

“When people who are trying to inform the public don't know things themselves, it becomes a problem, because they're not doing enough to inform that public of the different links and of the different histories that make challenges in First Nations communities,” Baker said.

Lacking that knowledge has led the media to perpetuate stereotypes about violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide in indigenous communities, without addressing the colonization that has contributed to these issues, Baker said.

Baker said indigenous people who make it on the news often fall under the category of one of the "4 D's": drumming, dancing, drunk or dead. That’s why it’s important to have indigenous journalists tell their own stories, he said.

In Guatemala, these journalists are often able to provide a perspective missing from mainstream media, Cojti, of Cultural Survival, said, adding, “Major newspapers do not look at the realities of indigenous communities and the needs of indigenous communities or the context of indigenous communities.”

The reporters often cover issues such as pollution, corruption, damage to the environment by extractive industries and violence against women.

“Journalists cannot be disengaged from the needs of their communities, and that's why they defend it with their reporting,” Cojti said. “They are supporting indigenous voices when it comes to the needs in health, in education, in land defense, in women's rights, in children's rights.”

A portion of the home page of the Anishinabek News.
A portion of the home page of the Anishinabek News.

In Canada, several indigenous outlets exist, including the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network; Canada’s oldest First Nations newspaper, Ha-Shilth-Sa; the Anishinabek News; First Nations Drum; and Windspeaker.

But, Baker said, “We've all been calling for more indigenous representation in news outlets.”

Southwick said that in Guatemala, a perceived lack of legitimacy, credentials and professionalism affects how indigenous reporters are treated.

“The authorities are basically saying ‘This person is not a journalist. We're ignoring the fact that they were there reporting,’ ” Southwick said.

Cojti of Cultural Survival agreed, saying that civil society and journalists need to push for indigenous media to be acknowledged and legitimized. It is important to not criminalize them for reporting on their own communities, Cotji said.