Washington Post article on Oaxaca gets a beating

An article published in this weekend’s Washington Post, called “Oaxaca: One Year Later”, has prompted heavy criticism from people living in the southern Mexican state which this time last year was the scene of huge civil unrest and what one critic describes as ‘some of the worst human rights abuses in recent Mexican history; detaining, torturing, and raping men, women, and children who had taken to the streets demanding social and economic justice.’ (Please see comments below for a response from the author).

The writer takes the reader to a number of local restaurants and businesses in Oaxaca, whilst attempting to trace the events of last year, which culminated in the deaths of reportedly as many as 23 people.

But a local film-maker and others living in the city today have attacked the article for its lack of insight into the problems that ravaged Oaxaca tweleve months ago, in which IndyMedia journalist Brad Will was killed, as well as a local teacher and an unconfirmed number of other people.

Critics said that the report is badly researched, and objected to the use of the word ‘riot’: “These “rioters”…… maintained non-violent protest encampments for months, despite regular paramilitary attacks that took the lives of over 23 people,” says Jill Freidberg of Corrugated Films, a media production company based in the city. You can read comments on her crits below her blog post.

Although commending the article for capturing the colour and atmosphere in Oaxaca, local writer Matt Plavnick says: “Use of the word “riots” throughout the article frames this struggle in such a way as to nullify efforts by the people of Oaxaca who peacefully protested for 7 months, from May 22 to November 25, against an oppressive government with a history of human rights violations.”

The article quotes both expats and local business people and is a combination of travel writing and commentary, although the quotes used are weighted more towards the opinions of expats living in the city than locals – as, to be fair, are the criticisms.

“One year later there is still not enough accurate, reliable information circulating about what has happened, and what may yet happen, in Oaxaca. This piece further serves to frustrate efforts to advance such information about the struggle in Oaxaca to the rest of the world. Oaxaca needs help reaching a point of comprehension and accountability regarding these events, and this will not be achieved through half-representations of recent history,” says Plavnik.

Freidberg adds: “As long as American travel writers continue to wring their hands over Oaxaca, implying that a non-violent social movement is to blame for the city’s lost charm, beauty and “authenticity,” while neglecting to educate readers about the true situation in this poorest of Mexican states, the discontent will continue to stir just below the surface, as it has done for 500 years.”

Read the article here, decide for yourself, and leave any comments.

6 Responses

  1. Yes, I agree it was a piece of shit article. Parachute journalism.

  2. Do not be unfair. The WP article took some time to review the city in terms of tourism and cited a number of local sources. This week New York times also published a feature — http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/11/25/travel/25hours.html — but it seemed phoned in.

    If our measure of articles about Oaxaca indicate a need to review the Brad Will murder, why is it that no media outlet has examine the question of why he was in Mexico on a tourist visa?

  3. I agree with Ron – let’s try and keep this nice. Constructive criticism please.

  4. Ceci Connolly, author of the report in the Washington Post, kindly sent me the following response to the criticisms the piece received:

    I can certainly appreciate the strong emotions about Oaxaca and what happened there one year ago. The story I wrote for the Post Travel Section was intended to give past and potential visitors a sense of the city today. It was not an effort to re-litigate what happened in 2006 or, frankly, to delve into the deep political and socioeconomic problems there. That said, we did not ignore those realities. In fact, in several instances the article refers to those ongoing tensions.

    I am sensitive to people who did not like the use of the word riots, but that is the word that accurately describes the situation at times during the conflict. The story also detailed the role by heavily-armed police.

  5. Regarding Ms. Connolly’s comment “The story also detailed the role by heavily-armed police.”

    This strikes me as completely disingenuous. The WaPo article actively makes mention of police activity only twice; once here:

    “The last time I was in Oaxaca, I was frantically trying to improvise a gas mask. The city was a war zone: anti-government protesters packing spray paint, rocks and Molotov cocktails; police in riot gear tossing canisters of black tear gas into the crowd.”

    and once here:

    “Some 4,000 federal police descended, erecting barricades and military-style encampments.”

    In both cases police action is explained as reaction to civil unrest, without ever attempting to explain the root of the unrest (or mentioning unprovoked attacks by police).

    There are two other instances where the author mentions or alludes to police, in both cases indirectly:

    “But marches in opposition to state Gov. Ulises Ruiz — who sent riot police to battle demonstrators — occur often, and residents say the underlying economic and political tensions remain.”


    “But in its effort to remove the ugly barricades and trash, the government also swept away a bit of Oaxaca’s soul.”

    That last one doesn’t even say police, but lumps police in under “government.”

    4 mentions, two indirect at best. That hardly qualifies as “detailed.”

    I get it that Connolly never set out to write a gravel-in-the-guts type piece about the conflict in Oaxaca, but seriously. There’s a human responsibility to represent with care, and that care is completely lacking here.

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