Mike O'Connor was a war correspondent around the world before and after his stretch as a reporter here at KCBS Channel 2 in the 1980s and 90s. He reported for NPR, CBS News, KRON and the New York Times, among others. Most recently, he was the representative in Mexico City of the Committee to Protect Journalists, trying to safeguard reporters in one of the most deadly nations to report in. Mike died Sunday morning of an apparent heart attack in the apartment he shared with his wife, Los Angeles Times Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson.
CPJ announced the death earlier today:
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.
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.
In the Times, Wilkinson's Mexico City colleague Richard Fausset writes that O'Connor was an important resource for reporters covering the drug wars in Mexico.
The reports he produced with his colleagues gave outsiders an unvarnished understanding of the scope and bloody mechanics of Mexican censorship: According to the group, 26 journalists have been murdered in the country since 1992, 23 of them with impunity.
Within Mexico, O'Connor's reputation among reporters and editors was as a rare trustworthy confidant. He was especially helpful to journalists in the regions beyond the Mexican capital, where intimidation of the press is more common. Reporters from far-flung papers called him regularly to discuss details of threats, updates on the disappearance of colleagues, and advice on how they might go into hiding or exile.
"He was an activist close to the low-level journalists — the ones in the streets of combat, the ones in the struggle — more than those from the journalistic heights," Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a correspondent and founder of Riodoce, a newspaper in the drug cartel-plagued state of Sinaloa, said in a phone interview Monday. "When other people would run away from dangerous areas, Mike would go to them to figure out what was going on with the journalists there. He was a brave, passionate man."
It happens that the Committee to Protect Journalists is represented in Mexico by one of America's most experienced and renowned reporters. Mike O'Connor is a veteran of the "dirty wars" in Central America during the 1980s for CBS television and of other conflicts thereafter for the New York Times. For nearly four years now, he has documented and investigated the intimidation and murder of Mexican reporters and toured the country consulting those under threat. He is uniquely qualified to explain how the war against the press speaks to Mexico's carnage.
"The government and authorities are ceding territory to the cartels and, for the cartels to take territory, three things have to happen," says O'Connor. "One is to control the institutions with guns—basically, the police. The second is to control political power. And, for the first two to be effective, you have to control the press.
"Every journalist I've spoken to says that the corruption of forces is such that the cartels control the politicians. That does not say that the cartels get money from this—there are rewards for the politicians and there's a very strong disincentive not to co-operate. I'm not quite sure what the word is to describe the relationship, but ultimately the capo is in charge."
On Facebook, former colleagues at KCBS are saying good things. "This is sad news indeed. Mike raised the bar on local reporting in his KCBS years," said Paul Skolnick.
O'Connor authored an autobiography, Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe.
From Daniel Hernandez, the Mexico editor for Vice, on his blog:
O'Connor was funny as hell, too, in the face of all the calamity he saw in Mexico. A dry wit that seemed at first to border on the unstable. He used extremely, uh, colorful language whenever warranted. It was fun talking to him on the phone, like we did just a few weeks ago. He'd ring me to shoot the shit for a bit, catch up on deep media-world memes. We'd curse the owners, curse the politicians, make dark jokes about life as a reporter in Mexico.
While working for Tracy Wilkinson at the LA Times bureau in Mexico City, I met Mike and gradually got to know the critical work he did in these years. He'd travel to the most cartel-corrupted regions of the country to investigate the murders and disappearances of local news reporters, and to offer support and guidance for those still keeping up a candle in the darkness. His most recent in-depth report on press security in Mexico for CPJ focused on the state of Zacatecas, which, not surprisingly, is smothered by fear, corruption, and silence.
He did it mostly in secret, to protect his subjects, and to protect himself. He was expert at these topics, shared his advice liberally: no photos of you if you cover corruption and drug war in regional Mexico, all lines should be considered tapped and recorded at all times, BlackBerry BBM (was) the most secure communications method for reporters working on dangerous subjects. In conversations both serious and casual, he made it clear: Never, ever trust the Party.
In short, fue un cabrón de los buenos and he will be missed, sorely.
Photo: George Lewis on Facebook