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Press Freedom News and Views

Mike O'Connor at a 2012 press conference in Culiacán. (Ron Bernal)

It is a sad end to 2013 for the global press freedom community.

With the sudden death of CPJ Mexico Representative Mike O'Connor, 67, on Sunday, Mexican journalists have lost one of their most formidable advocates. Mike will be remembered as someone who was on the forefront of the struggle for press freedom. His superb skills as an investigative journalist helped scores of reporters across the country during a period marred by violence and censorship.

Since he started working for CPJ in January 2009, Mike played a critical role as an advocate for the rights of Mexican journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. He was an exceptional journalist, truly committed to the cause of human rights and press freedom, and his extensive travels across Mexico gave him a profound understanding of the problems that local journalists face in a climate of lawlessness and fear.

Javier Garza Ramos, former editor of the embattled newspaper El Siglo de Torreón in Coahuila, remembered Mike with great admiration. "Mike's presence was essential during a crisis. In the rush to take protective measures, Mike's phone calls, several times a day, were not only a reminder that we were not alone, but a guide amid confusion," he wrote. "His death leaves a great void in the struggle of Mexican journalists for security and protection. And it leaves me with an unpaid debt for his generosity, support and friendship."

Mike often wrote about how reporters and their families were affected by the violence that has made Mexico one of the world's most dangerous countries for the press. His first special report for CPJ, which described the dire situation for journalists in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, is an excellent example of his outstanding skills as a reporter. But perhaps the most impactful one was "Silence or Death in Mexico's Press," which CPJ presented to former President Felipe Calderón in September 2010.

Mike's work had a tremendous impact on one of CPJ's biggest successes in recent years. On May 3, in what CPJ called "a step forward in the fight against impunity," Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed legislation to implement a constitutional amendment giving federal authorities broader jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against freedom of expression. Mike's contribution to that milestone was huge. He campaigned tirelessly for more involvement from the federal government in prosecuting press crimes, and persuaded journalists, advocates, legislators, and officials that the passage of the amendment would provide the country with a better framework to protect freedom of expression. He finally prevailed.

A particularly frank colleague, Mike would never hesitate to tell Mexican officials how he felt about the risks that his Mexican colleagues faced. Former CPJ awardee Javier Valdez Cárdenas, one of the founders of the Culiacán-based magazine Ríodoce, remembered a comment Mike made in 2012 during a press conference in Culiacán. "Who is in charge in Sinaloa? Is it the governor or them ...?" Mike had asked at the time. The statement was interpreted, Valdez said, as a description of the influence that Mexican drug cartels exert over state officials, a topic that Mike had covered extensively. Valdez said his Sinoloa colleagues never forgot the comment.

"We will always remember his dignity, his laughter and his witticism," Valdez said. "'Maicol,' as we called him in Ríodoce, was a true friend."

Mike had a long and brilliant career as a foreign correspondent. He covered the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for NPR, and the former Yugoslavia and Central America for NPR and The New York Times. He earned an Overseas Press Club award for his reporting from Haiti. He covered Latin America for CBS News and was a television reporter in the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles.

I had the honor and privilege of working with Mike for five years. His words and his actions on behalf of press freedom will continue to be an inspiration to all of us. We will miss his commitment to press freedom, his sarcasm and sense of humor, and his friendship.

Our deepest condolences go out to Mike's wife, Tracy Wilkinson, to his family, and to his many friends. If you knew Mike, we invite you to share your memories of him in a comment below.

December 30, 2013 4:02 PM ET | | Comments (11) | Also in Español

Comments

Mike wasn't just a no-nonsense kind of person. Mike saw through the nonsense, too, and in his line of work -- as a foreign/war correspondent and as a documenter of impunity -- such a skill was indispensable. He was funny, angry, charming, and focused every time I saw him speak, in public, and in private. We didn't know each other long, and we met in the depths of a huge crisis confronting Mexico's press, when passions were inflamed and lots of nonsense was flying about. He could be excoriating, and he was, for my money, always right about the things he was trying to piece together. He kept me on track.

His work protecting journalists, especially in Mexico, was absolutely vital and indispensable. He was just so dogged -- so persistent in trying to figure out what had really happened to a dead or threatened journalist, so willing to talk to people on all sides and to keep going that even though he is gone, his example will definitely persist. In recent years, Mike covered one of the most dangerous, difficult beats for a human rights investigator -- documenting the impunity for crimes against Mexican journalists -- and probably came up against a hundred brick walls a day. But he kept going. And going. And I think we are all going to miss that spirit and energy.

My thoughts go out to Tracy Wilkinson and to CPJ, and to all those Mexican journalists trying to report the truth who had a friend and ally in Mike O'Connor. QEPD.


State Department Condolences on Death of Mike O'Connor, Mexico Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists


Press Statement
Jen Psaki
Department Spokesperson
Washington, DC
December 31, 2013

We would like to extend our deepest condolences to foreign correspondent Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times, the surviving widow of Mike O’Connor, Mexico Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who passed away on December 29.

Mike was a fearless truth seeker and an indefatigable advocate for the protection of journalists covering organized crime and corruption issues in Mexico and Central America. Whether transporting endangered reporters to safe havens or lobbying government officials for measures to end impunity, Mike was a passionate and articulate voice of conscience for many. He authored reports on grave threats to Mexico’s journalists and motivated both the Mexican and U.S. Governments to take steps to ensure that reporters were free to tell their stories. His work at CPJ followed a long and distinguished career covering Latin America for CBS News, NPR and the New York Times. We honor the memory of Mike O’Connor, and know that his legacy will inspire many to keep fighting for truth and for the defense of human rights and a vibrant, free press.


PRN: 2013/1634

http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/219215.htm

Had dinner with Mike and Tracy not too long ago just after Mike had returned from Zacatecas. He was full of indignation and outrage at what he had seen in this once beautiful and peaceful state, a state overrun with violence and lawlessness. He was particularly (and rightly) incensed by the vague promises of politicians who seemed not to see or care about what was going on in their own backyard. Mike was especially concerned that journalists who were witnesses to the violence where unable to report it.

Those surrounded by violence and injustice often become immune to the tragedy that surrounds them. Not Mike! He saw and reported the uncomfortable and unpleasant truth about what was and is happening throughout Mexico. I owe a debt of gratitude to Mike for his work and his passion.

My condolences and love to Tracy. Fuertes abrazos, Eric

uis Cardona/ diario19.com / 29 de diciembre de 2013

mike oconnor1Este 29 de diciembre de 2013, una de las personas que más se interesaba en la labor y protección de los periodistas en México, a quién diario19.com debe en gran parte la idea de unidad entre periodistas desplazados y agredidos en nuestro país, dejó de existir tras sufrir un percance cardiaco durante la madrugada, de acuerdo a lo relatado por su esposa Tracy.

Tracy sabe que quienes en México fuimos auxiliados desinteresadamente por su esposo, lo veíamos como un gran amigo, al cual respetamos además de su destacada carrera como periodista, por su entrega en cada caso de periodistas agredidos. Siempre pendiente, siempre localizándonos, nunca quiso enseñarnos nada “ustedes lo saben todo, ustedes saben más que yo, de ustedes aprendo”… decía el humilde Mike.

Mike O´connor, no gustaba de vanagloriarse con historias de café, tampoco ser el eje de las conversaciones. Escuchaba, observaba y cuando debía intervenir lo hacia. “cuando te buscan para matarte, ningún protocolo te salva… solo queda esperar que lo hagan lo más rápido posible, o huir si es que te enteras antes de que serás objetivo de un atentado… el Botón de pánico, solo sirve para decir tus últimas palabras”. Ese era el humor negro de Mike, con el que nos inducía a ser lo más precavidos posible, sin dejar de valorar nuestra profesión de periodistas.

Nuestro entrañable amigo se quedó dormido y ya no despertó. Nada religioso, siempre externó sus dudas sobre lo divino, sin cuestionar ni poner en duda a nadie. Vivió la muerte de cerca, muy de cerca, observó a miles de personas ser presa de la impunidad con que el poder les arrebataba la vida. Difícil poder creer en algo, cuando veía morir niños a manos de francotiradores al acudir a llenar un recipiente de agua en alguna de las fuentes en los Balcanes.

Hemos perdido a un gran ser humano a un “Gringo”, como se auto-nombraba, que sabía luchar codo a codo con los periodistas desprotegidos mexicanos. Nuestro amigo Mike ya no volverá a llamarnos por teléfono para ver cómo estamos, qué nos hace falta. No nos tenderá la mano de nuevo sin pedir nada a cambio, más que saber que no hemos vuelto a ser agredidos.

Su trabajo con e Comité de Protección a Periodistas, iba más allá que informar de una estadística más, se comprometía a tal grado que fueron varios los avisos subliminales de que era “vigilado” cuando viajaba a observar el estado en que vivíamos los periodistas mexicanos, asediados por la violencia.

El creyó siempre más en la intuición del periodista que identifica los riesgos de su profesión, que en protocolos financiados por los mismos que agreden al informador.

Mike O’Connor, es un periodista real, ya en la última etapa de su vida, fue jefe de la oficina en México del Comité para la Protección de los Periodistas (CPJ), representante de @pressfreedom en México”. O’Connor, fue veterano de guerra cubriendo los conflictos en Centroamérica y los Balcanes.

En México, desde 2009 a la fecha, documentó agresiones y homicidios de periodistas en el marco de la lucha entre cárteles de la droga y entre estos y las autoridades.

Mike O’Connor inició como corresponsal extranjero en 1983, cuando cubrió las guerras civiles de El Salvador y Nicaragua para CBS News. Fue corresponsal para asuntos de Centroamérica de la NPR y The New York Times. Para el mismo The New York Times cubrió el conflicto en los Balcanes, y para NPR cubrió el conflicto palestino.

El año anterior Mike, junto con Carlos Lauría, jefe del CPJ en América Latina, dieron a conocer un informe sobre la violencia contra la prensa en México, resaltando cómo los medios en Zacatecas, México, fueron obligados a dejar de informar sobre la lucha entre los cárteles de la droga por razones de seguridad.

Para nosotros los desplazados, ha sido un gran amigo, alguien sin igual. Cuando diario19.com nació de una platica en un café de la colonia Roma con él, cerca de donde nos encontrábamos varios bajo protección de diferentes organismos de auxilio a periodistas en riesgo en México. Inmediatamente alentó la idea, y nos fue uniendo poco a poco.

El 22 de diciembre en nuestra última charla, cuando hacia las compras en un supermercado del DF al lado de Tracy, me dijo: Luis, diario 19, va a ser muy fuerte. Ustedes son fuertes. Nadie les va a decir cómo hacerlo, ustedes van a ir descubriendo el rumbo. No es el mismo escenario de sus tierras, tampoco son los mejores periodistas de México, pero diario 19 será fuerte, porque ustedes sabrán decir las cosas. Estuvieron “cerquita” de la muerte, saben de lo que son capaces estos cabrones. Tu lo sabes, esto será fuerte por ustedes, no se en cuanto tiempo, ni quién les vaya a ayudar, ja ja ja… pero ustedes lo harán fuerte”.

Mike; Rodrigo, Polo, Mario, Laura, Julio, Emilio y Luis, te extrañamos hermano. Te amamos.

Mike O'Connor's reporting often moved one to outrage, sometimes to tears, and always to a greater understanding of the profound threat to free expression in Mexico. His tireless advocacy helped move a reluctant congress and presidential administration to change the nation's constitution, its statutes and its law enforcement offices to better protect the press.

That is a truly remarkable legacy, and of course, it is just one aspect of Mike's impressive career.

I had the privilege of working with Mike for several years at CPJ. Like the very best reporters, Mike had a relentless determination to expose and rectify injustice, along with an extraordinary capacity for empathy and compassion. He could move one to tears but also to laughter and joy.

Reporting from dangerous places, Mike produced an unvarnished portrait of a country at risk of losing one if its most basic values to criminals and corrupt officials.

He made people stop and think and, most amazing, to act. Not enough, not yet, but his work has greatly improved the circumstances for all those who come after him. What greater professional success can there be?

As a member of the board of the Overseas Press Club of America, I owed Mike O'Connor a special debt of gratitude. When he discovered that our Freedom of the Press Committee had an outdated roster of Mexican government officials, Mike pitched in to update our mailing list. It gave our letters of protest a chance of getting through Mexico's abysmal postal services.
At the same time, Mike persuaded us at OPC to express our support for the Mexican constitutional amendment giving federal prosecutors greater authority in local matters involving crimes against journalists.
Mike and I met years ago in Nicaragua while we were covering the Contra war against the Sandinista government. We were professional competitors (CBS News versus ABC News) but we were also allies, it seemed, in the search for facts. He never stopped fighting for truth and justice. We've lost a great warrior.

Mike was a true hero, the type that doesn’t boast about his heroism. He helped, like few others, our threatened Mexican colleagues, particularly those more vulnerable outside Mexico City. He tirelessly toured the interior of the country trying to find the truth behind violence against the press in Mexico. He seem not to be afraid of corrupt officials. We have lost an unmeasurable ally. A true human being. We’ll miss you, Mike.

Mike fue un verdadero héroe, de los que no hacen alarde de su heroísmo. Ayudó como pocos a los colegas amenazados, particularmente a aquellos más vulnerables fuera de la capital. Recorrió el interior del país incansablemente, tratando de encontrar la verdad detrás de la violencia contra la prensa en México. Parecía no temerle a las autoridades corruptas. Hemos perdido a un inconmensurable aliado. Un verdadero ser humano. Te echáremos de menos, Mike.

Mike and I began working in TV journalism together at KRON-TV in San Francisco in 1982.We did our first investigative seriess there on a corrupt police department. We have been closest of friends ever since. We lost touch when he was in eastern Europe. I hired him when I was news director at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. It wasn't easy being his boss. He hated bosses for all the right reasons.

Actually I couldn't be his boss. I loved him. I read his book in galleys and discovered all this information about his childhood which I thought would help me understand him. It didn't. He was the most complex, generous, angry, street brilliant journalist I ever met.

When I was in charge at KCBS-TV I got a call from Mike who was with a crew on 77th and Raymond in South Central. A man was being arrested by LAPD. An angry crowd gathered and he called to tell me that the LA riots were about to begin. He was there at the beginning.
That kind of thing happened a lot.

When Mike went to Mexico and began work for CPJ we started a weekly phone conversation about his work. We discussed cases,strategies and such but it was really just an outlet for his rage at the injustice, corruption and suffering he witnessed It was stunning to hear the stories, the crises he was dealing with.

In the midst of all this he stopped smoking and drinking which was good for his health but an added strain. Tracy was clearly the rock that kept him connected to the earth. She called the day of his death. I always thought I'd outlive him. But I never imagined stress might overhwelm him. He'd lived with it for so long. He leaves a big hole in my life and the lives of so many here and in Mexico. There will not be another like him.
Michael RIP>

Worked with Mike and Michael Singer at KRON-TV in San Francisco. Had a drink with him quite a few years ago in the City. Great, passionate, hard working journalist who will be missed.

I want to express my condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Mike O´Connor for his passing away.

His departure is a very sad and terrible loss for journalists in Mexico, for he was very committed to the protection of journalists and freedom of the press here in Mexico.

I came in contact with Mike in 2011 when I sought help from CPJ for a journalist friend of mine who feared for her safety in Mexico. Mike promptly contacted me.

By talking to him on the phone, I noticed that Mike was extremely knowledgeable of the political situation in Mexico and of the security threats that journalists face here. He was also very kind and very willing to help. I am very saddened by his sudden departure. He helped to make known, both outside of Mexico and within Mexico, the situation of insecurity that journalists face here in Mexico. He was, as some would say, a 'good Gringo,' one of the many US citizens who have given a lot to Mexico and to Mexicans, and he will be greatly missed.

Mexico has lost a tremendous advocate for human rights and press freedom. Deep condolences to Tracy, to the rest of Mike's family, and to his many friends and colleagues.


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