Mabel Cáceres: Giving Peruvians a Voice with Independent Journalism and Media

downloadMabel Cáceres was through with Peru’s president interfering with her reporting. So she launched her news business.

Seeking to hold onto and extend his power, President Alberto Fujimori’s administration was dedicated to manipulating the press. A broad government campaign – including death threats, abductions and libel suits – intimidated many in the media into self-censorship and exile, according to Freedom House.

“I was directing a local TV channel owned by a university in 1999. The university, its authorities and the channel succumbed to the regime,” says Cáceres. “The newscast was suspended for a year.”

For Cáceres, the newscast’s suspension was the last straw. She decided that the only way to guarantee independence was to set up her own business. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine and online daily El Búho (The Owl).

What keeps pushing me is to see the information gap that exists in the cities of Peru other than Lima. Mabel Cáceres

Cáceres wasn’t alone in resenting the Fujimori government’s efforts to control information. Raising the capital necessary to start the publication therefore proved to be less of an obstacle than she feared. In just a few months she had raised initial funding from a network of like-minded people, “what we now call crowdfunding,” she says.

“A group of intellectuals, journalists, friends, we were searching for financing between professionals, local companies and friends – everybody that was disgusted by the takeover of information by the government and the lack of independent bodies, at that time,” she adds.

By the end of 2000, Fujimori had fled Peru for Japan amid allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. The charges caught up with him: he is now serving a 25-year jail sentence in Peru for murder, abuse of power and drug trafficking.

The president’s departure didn’t end the intimidation, which became more subtle and insidious. In Peru, as in many emerging markets, governments and oligarchs are adopting less visible means of media intimidation. Biased subsidies and advertising are used as a form of soft censorship to influence content and, ultimately, threaten an outlet’s viability.

Earlier this year, Fujimori was convicted of funneling more than US$40 million in public funds to tabloid newspapers that smeared his opponents during his 2000 re-election campaign.

Combatting soft censorship requires business rigor and innovation. A decade and a half after Fujimori, Cáceres says that financial intimidation of independent media is routine.

“[The environment] is hostile towards independent journalism because people from the government or from big corporations often directly tell media owners to avoid addressing certain matters or to impose a certain point of view,” Cáceres says. “The way the hostility is manifested is by removing their ads.”

Financing from the Media Development Investment Fund helped El Búho transition from a weekly newspaper to a print and online magazine format. El Búho’s staff developed a TV program to strengthen the company’s commercial position.

The magazine is based in Arequipa, Peru’s second city. Local issues are the main focus of its investigations and consequently the major source of friction.

“Corruption of regional presidents is a controversial topic because of all the power they have, and other cases in state universities, which were a kind of impenetrable territory which nobody knew anything about,” says Cáceres. “Also the behaviour of extractive companies – mining – that do not pay taxes and do not meet environmental protocols, also for their economic power that ends up pushing their suppliers into removing ads from us.”

It is helping to change society, which has been slowly creating greater public awareness about this problem and the need to control power.Mabel Cáceres

Another tactic to intimidate the magazine is to overwhelm them with court cases. Cáceres has been the target of more than a dozen lawsuits in the past two years and continues to receive frequent death threats. Last year, she  was named as one of 100 Information Heroes by Reporters Sans Frontières on World Press Freedom Day.

Protecting the environment, particularly from the abusive exploitation of local resources, is a recurring theme of El Búho’s coverage. Over the last two years, the magazine has produced a series of articles about water resource management in Arequipa. The subject is sensitive due to a severe shortage caused by climate change and difficulties in treatment (most water isn’t potable).

For years now, El Búho has covered the community’s discontent with Peru’s Tía María copper mine, a US$ 1.4 billion project owned by Southern Copper Corp. The mine’s environmental conditions were the subject of a report by the UN’s Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in 2011.

“What keeps pushing me is to see the information gap that exists in the cities of Peru other than Lima. The media are more and more concentrated in large national conglomerates that ignore local reality,” Cáceres says.

Across Peru, independent media have supported the country’s economic and social development by uncovering corruption at all levels of government. “It is helping to change society, which has been slowly creating greater public awareness about this problem and the need to control power.”

The same desire to shine a light on wrongdoing contributes to the venture’s biggest day-to-day headache: economic sustainability. In a tough economic environment, moral support is essential. “We seek allies among civil society for mutual support and we are strengthening our commitment to the audience that supports us, at least in public opinion – they defend us on social networks, for example.”

Peru is a patriarchal society and discrimination is routine, yet Cáceres is clear that the pressure she lives under “is not so much about gender, but because of my independent position.” She advises women journalists, “to ignore the discrimination, because in the end what matters is how professional one is.”

She also advises aspiring female entrepreneurs in any sector to think carefully before they launch a business; they need to be sure they’re ready to face the testing times that inevitably lie ahead.

“First weigh the risks and be willing to face challenges that are not present in other areas. For women, not to be intimidated, because in macho societies the easiest way to discourage them is to use aggression of their womanhood, to involve their families or defame them with matters of personal life,” she says.

“It is possible to face that, but you have to be prepared and you have to prepare your family for that.”

More From the Women Effect in Independent Media Series

The Women Effect in Independent Media Series highlights women in media building commercially viable, independent, news businesses in environments hostile to the press.

Introduction: The Women Effect in Independent Media Series

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Part I: Natasa Tesanovic’s TV business is helping rebuild Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Part II: Mabel Cáceres’ digital magazine is giving Peruvians a voice

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Part III: Chia Ting Ting is strengthening independent media in Malaysia through innovations in advertising

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