Mexico: Journalism in the crosshairs of politics and corruption
By Elva Narcia
Journalism in Mexico is a dangerous business. Many reporters risk their lives to tell stories that criminals and powerful people would like to keep secret. Yet even if they can work safely, journalists run the gauntlet of a corrupt and politically compromised media landscape, in which media, hungry for lucrative government advertising, dance to the tune of its power elite.
The country’s media are characterised by the absence of pluralism, a weak public service, a duopoly of terrestrial television, radio in the hands of a few businessmen, a great number of newspapers and magazines with very few readers and limited access to the Internet. Reporters Without Borders reports that “media independence and transparency is undermined by the very close connections between media and politicians.”
The media landscape in Mexico is actually surprisingly developed and vibrant, at least compared with other countries in the region. There are more than 300 dailies printed in the country’s 32 states, along with 1,646 commercial radio stations and 236 television channels. In México City alone there are almost 100 magazines and 25 newspapers.
Yet the sheer number of media outlets does not necessarily lead to quality journalism. Music programs, soap operas, competitions, gossip, sports, fashion and entertainment fill hours of radio and television and the pages of printed media and websites. Good quality journalism, well produced documentaries and investigative reporting can only be found in a handful of cases.
The few examples of truly independent media are mainly located in the most developed cities, including Guadalajara, Monterrey and México City. National newspapers such as Reforma and El Universal lead the list. Weekly magazine Proceso, which has, since the early 1970s, practiced critical and investigative journalism, is the only independent national magazine in the country.
Reforma is also an editorial group that owns Monterrey daily El Norte and Mural in Guadalajara, both rare examples of independent media at the provincial level. All of these media outlets seem to have found a formula for survival on sales and commercial advertising. Contrary to most media in the country, government advertising is not their main source of revenue.
Some individual journalists do resist conformity. Broadcaster Carmen Aristegui, who currently presents a news program that airs on radio and cable television, is by far one of the most professional and the most influential. She has herself been at the center of controversy on several occasions, the latest example in 2012 when she broadcast a report on opposition claims that then-President Felipe Calderon was an alcoholic. Her contract with the broadcasting company MVS was terminated, arguing that she violated its code of ethics, but following pressure from intellectuals and journalists she was reinstated a few days later.
Like in much of the world, Mexico is experiencing an explosion of digital news sites and magazines. Most of them are replicating the model of traditional media, yet they struggle to survive and are dependent on government advertising. It’s not rare for them to publish official news bulletins almost word-for-word, passing the bill later to a Ministry or government office.
But there are a few exceptions to the rule: websites such as Animal Politico, La Silla Rota, Eje Central and Sin Embargo have become points of reference for reliable information and examples of true critical reporting. Investigative journalism is practiced only by a very small number of media outlets, as it is seen as expensive and time consuming. A large number of media organisations are owned by businessmen, and information is seen in many cases as a commodity to be traded.
The rules for broadcasting
In broadcasting, big players dominate. National television mainly exists in a duopoly system in the hands of a couple of wealthy businessmen, Emilio Azcarraga Jean and Ricardo Salinas Pliego. Televisa, a private company that employs some 20,000 people, prints several magazines, owns a football team and manages sports programs, live entertainment and film distribution. The outlet’s news programs are often the only source of information in remote areas of the country, and although there seems to be some degree of effort towards plurality, the channel is well known for its close links with the government.
Televisa’s main competitor, Television Azteca, was originally a public broadcasting service, but was privatised and purchased in the early 1990s by Ricardo Salinas Pliego, a businessman who made his name in the electrical appliances industry. Azteca has since grown steadily, and it now also owns a football team and a bank and currently employs 15,000 people.
It isn’t rare in Mexico for these kinds of businessmen to own media organisations; media outlets are often used as a tool to expand other businesses and to win political power and influence.
Sebastian Aguirre from Article 19 understands that media outlets are businesses with salaries to pay and expenses to cover. “Many of the media tycoons don’t have a journalism background, they are businessmen”, he said. “All that we ask is transparency, it doesn’t matter if they have links with the government or a political party but they have to be open and transparent about it”.
Roberto Rock, who currently manages digital news site La Silla Rota (The Broken Chair) explains that Mexico has a long authoritarian history, with media viewed as the muscle of political parties and an appendix to the government. It was a very comfortable relationship, he says, where journalists were sheltered by political power. But all of that changed during the 1980s following a huge financial crisis where there was no money to waste and the government realised it needed to talk directly to the people instead of relying on newspapers or magazines (television was still seen as important).
Before moving to La Silla Rota, Rock was for many years the Director General of national newspaper El Universal, a daily founded in 1916. As with many other newspapers, El Universal once had close links with the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), but has since transformed itself into one of the few independent media organisations in the country.
“Mexico is a country in transition,” says Rock, and the years of total government control are “long gone”. But some media outlets still seem to miss the comfort of being sheltered by political power. “There is great confusion and little information, no ethical standards and no interest to push for more transparency in the ways the media receives financial support from the government”.
The situation is especially grim in the provinces, where Governors traditionally exercise huge control over the media and journalists have little or no culture of independence. “Anybody who owns a media outlet knows that to be able to survive it is necessary to make alliances with the government,” said Isain Mandujano, a journalist from the southern state of Chiapas who currently manages a news website called Chiapas Paralelo (“Parallel Chiapas”). The result of this is, in his view, “censorship, self-censorship, manipulation and distortion of information”.
Mandujano founded Chiapas Paralelo along with his wife and a small group of friends. They claim to have refused government financial support to be able to practice independent journalism, and all have alternative sources of income, including lecturing at universities and writing for national newspapers or magazines.
They too would like to benefit from government advertising, “but not at any cost.” What is needed, according to Mandujano, is a system in which the distribution of public funds is open and transparent. “Media organisations shouldn’t be ashamed of telling everybody how much advertising money they are receiving”.
At the federal level there is an official website where the distribution of funds for advertising is published and open to the public, but there are still millions of pesos that go unaccounted for. Media managers and owners continue to make unofficial deals with politicians, and the impact is seen directly in the newsroom.
Sometimes the agreement is to attack the opposition and avoid publishing stories critical of the government, or vice versa. Self-censorship is usually the result and is itself an instrument of corruption – “to keep quiet to continue collecting money” in the words of Gerardo Albarrán, a former journalist and currently the director of “Sala de prensa” (“Newsroom”), an independent project that promotes freedom of expression and ethical journalism.
The wages of sin: Bribery and corruption in the newsroom
Journalists in Mexico are paid very low wages compared to other professions in the country. A reporter just starting in his or her career, for example, gets paid around 250 euros a month. They are rarely full time employees with medical and life insurance, paid vacations and other similar benefits. They usually work long hours and often risk their lives on dangerous assignments. In some states like Oaxaca, in the south of the country, a freelance journalist gets paid approximately 2 to 3 euros for a published article.
To make ends meet, journalists usually have to find other sources of income – in some cases by taking on another paid job, but just as often through unethical practices such as bribes, special favors such as offering employment to a relative or friend, or expensive gifts. Sometimes it involves a monthly contribution from a source, whether it be the government, drug cartels, trade unions or other sources of information.
In Mexico this practice is called “chayote” “embute” or “peine” and traditionally it was given to journalists in small brown envelopes containing cash. The amount of money varies according to the stature of the media representative – it is usually the press officer who is in charge of giving these “gifts” in exchange for the media turning a blind eye to negative reports or publishing positive information on a particular government official.
Paid journalism has become sophisticated. Journalists are appointed directly as government advisors, and those who publish columns or news websites or have radio or television programs (or even a popular Facebook or Twitter account) often receive government advertising money or a financial contribution from a government official.
According to Gerardo Albarrán, several journalists that he met years ago have since become political columnists or have their own websites or programs in local television channels. “I have personally seen contracts for their websites or television programs and they get paid up to 130,000 dollars for five programs”.
Journalist Andrea Merloz, who used to cover the Congress for the national newspaper Reforma and currently edits La Silla Rota, remembers that, although the political transition in the country during the 1990s may have paved the way for the diversification of media, it didn’t end the “dance of millions”.
“I reported on Congress when the PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party) lost the elections in 2000 after more than 70 years in power. That made the competition amongst journalists a real one.” But things didn’t change much, and Members of Congress still give money to journalists and camera people in exchange for a mention in a news report or being shown on camera even for a second or two.
Roberto Rock, gets angry when people talk about the corruption of reporters. “Corruption is at a higher level where suitcases of cash, with not thousands but millions of pesos go from hand to hand”.
“A reporter gets killed or abducted and his or her family doesn’t even have food to eat,” while media managers and media owners are getting millions of cash under the table. According to him, “that is where the corruption is”.
Millions of pesos of government advertising are distributed among media outlets throughout the country every year, but that distribution of public money is not transparent and is completely discretional. It is essentially a tool for authorities to exercise control over the media and to push a political agenda.
“Government advertising is managed as a prize or punishment,” says Isain Mandujano, a reporter from the southern state of Chiapas. “The moment a journalist starts being critical, the advertisement is withdrawn and the journalist is prosecuted, or a family member loses their job, or crimes are fabricated.”
In many states, media organisations that are critical of the government or government bodies face numerous pressures such as financial audits, police intimidation and public discrediting, but the most common strategy is still to withhold public advertising.
Journalists are often caught up in the battle for public advertising too, with some outlets such as leftist newspaper La Jornada still engaging in the formerly-common practice of offering commissions to journalists from advertising revenues.
Juan Balboa, one of the 150 shareholders who own La Jornada, explains that the statutes of the newspaper originally established that reporters were entitled to 10 percent of advertising commission but that, since the 1980s, this has changed so much that some journalists now get a commission of up to 50 percent. According to him, “there is no transparency and no accountability” – if the shareholders demand information it is rarely provided. He laments that the newspaper has “fallen into the corrupt hands of a small group that treats information as a business”.
Regulation of government advertising
In the words of Gerardo Albarrán, public advertising is used as a “mechanism of control for which there does not exist proper legislation, nor rules or regulations that force the government to be transparent”. No rules to force the government but also no rules to force the media, and no interest, it seems, on either side to push for this kind of legislation.
Efforts to regulate official advertising started in the 1970s but “advertising is not ruled by the law, it is ruled by the political power,” says Francisco Vidal, media academic, journalist and author of “The Fourth State” a book on media as a business. “There is no way to supervise official advertising and governments spend more than what is approved every year by the Congress”.
Overspending in public advertising seems to be a common practice. The government of former President Felipe Calderon (2006-2012) had a 200 percent excess in expenditure according to the report Buying Compliance; Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico, produced by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) in cooperation with the Center for Analysis and Research FUNDAR and the Mexican office of Article 19.
At a provincial level, 25 States spent 72 percent more funds than originally allowed for in the Congress-approved budget. This is described as a “masked subsidy” by Article 19.
Current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) promised during his electoral campaign that he would implement normative changes during his first year in office. He pledged to promote laws and legislation to regulate official advertising through constitutional reforms.
As Francisco Vidal recalls, the President and the political parties agreed to create an independent and autonomous institution run by the civil society – a body that would be in charge of the supervision of all advertising contracts between media and federal and local governments. But, he says, “the legal framework doesn’t establish public, competitive, open and transparent procedures.”
The promised new law recommends that all contracts should have to follow the principles of public service, transparency, respect to editorial freedom, promoting access to information and establishing a limit to the amount of money spent in advertising, except during emergencies such as natural disasters. It would also guarantee the right of reply. Yet at the time of writing, eighteen months had passed since the signing of the agreement and the initiative had not even been sent to the National Congress.
In an effort to improve transparency, the federal government, through the Ministry of Public Administration, also created a website with regular reports on the expenditure on advertising and social communication. The annual budget, according to the website is 4,642,805,000 Mexican pesos (approximately 275 million euros).
Yet at the same time, the current administration has shown it is more than willing to use the media for its own ends. One of the main objectives on the political agenda of President Peña Nieto was to push for a package of controversial constitutional reforms on education, telecommunications and energy. To sell the reforms to the Mexican public, an intensive communications campaign was carefully crafted, and millions of pesos of the annual budget were poured into radio and television spots, billboards and paid journalism. This bombardment of official propaganda gave little room for diverse and critical voices to be heard. They existed, to be fair, but only occasionally and only in some media.
A week before Peña Nieto’s first State of the Nation (September 1st, 2014), an avalanche of propaganda on the most watched and listened news and entertainment programs flooded national radio and television channels. The messages highlighted the achievements of the government with a promise of prosperity. The bombardment was such that it gave no time or opportunity to the audience to be able to make a critical assessment on the government’s activities during the past year.
The Center for Analysis and Research Fundar made a legal appeal to the judiciary court arguing against this practice, which it said prevents the public from receiving useful information and inhibits the right to a diversity of opinions.
The Ministry of Public Administration website shows that President Peña Nieto spent more than four million pesos on his first year in office – one million pesos less than his predecessor President Calderon (2006-2012) but more than former President Vicente Fox (2000-2006). According to Article 19, the expenditure on official advertising has increased since December 2012, 171.44 percent and each year continues to increase by 17.4 percent.
The same kinds of problems occur at the provincial level – in the southern state of Chiapas, Governor Manuel Velasco Suarez spent in December 2012, 130 million pesos (7 million euros) on advertising, blanketing the state with pictures of himself along with slogans of prosperity and government achievements. Legal action filed by the opposition was unsuccessful, with the national electoral body admitting that there was no law in place that established a punishment or a sanction for this kind of activity.
“In not a single state in the country is there a normativity that regulates advertising expenditure. This is an old demand from different organisations – law initiatives have been waiting in a corner. Laws that regulate advertising expenditure are a pending chapter,” said journalist and activist Rogelio Hernández.
The relationship between political power and the media in Mexico is “perverse,” in the view of Aleida Calleja, former president of the Mexican Association for Freedom of Information. “The citizens lose but the political parties don’t care because they benefit from this lack of rules, hence the inaction on ruling on the matter”.
Blurring lines between editorial and advertising
It is not rare to observe that, on high-rating news programs on radio and television, advertorials are broadcasts as news with no clear identification and no clear warning to the audience. The old tradition of framing the advertorials on printed press and using a different font to differentiate them from news seems to have been lost.
Monitored national radio stations and television channels for several weeks for this report, we identified a series of advertorials masked as journalism. News stories on national security issues or items in the public interest were mixed with reports on a governor giving uniforms to school children or another giving other kinds of gifts to women or farmers somewhere in the country. Stories that were clearly not newsworthy were broadcast as if they were.
“There is no chance to receive impartial and balanced reporting,” says Francisco Vidal, who describes the relationship between media and the government in the country as one of “total promiscuity”. He says that the media in Mexico has a love affair with the government and this is “a requited love”.
A more critical and educated audience is seeking out information on blogs, websites, Twitter accounts and other alternative media. “The people don’t trust main stream media anymore,” says Vidal, and the reaction of the people during protests and demonstrations captures this discontent. People chant “sold media” when they see a reporter and in some occasions journalists have been physically assaulted.
Conclusions and recommendations
The close relationship between the media and the government in Mexico is a clear and present danger to independent journalism. Although in Mexico City increasing press freedom can be observed, the media still need government support to survive, and the reality is harsher in the provinces.
Government advertising, for instance, is not something negative – it helps build a bridge between the governments and their communities and informs citizens about challenges in areas of health, education, environment, development and infrastructure. It should be a public service funded with public funds. But this seems to have been forgotten by people in power who use it in a corrupt and authoritarian manner and with impunity. The fair and transparent distribution of government advertisement through transparent rules, regulations and laws could help media survive. By offering the audience professionalism and strong, innovative content will help recover trust, and that could improve sales and advertising prospects.
Democracy is still in the making in Mexico. The notion of public accountability and the need for transparency in government is still not widely understood. Journalists have to learn that they are watchdogs; they should expose illegal practices not practice them. Sadly, recognition of conflicts of interest is not part of the media culture, and where it is understood it is consciously overlooked. Media people, particularly in the provinces, fail to recognise that close links with politicians, trade unions, or any source of information can compromise independent journalism. The same goes for accepting freebies or bribes.
At the same time salaries for journalists are low and working conditions, in most cases, are appalling. The profession brings with it inevitable risks, particularly in Mexico, amongst the more dangerous countries to be a journalist.
Professionalisation of the media is urgently needed; introduction of ethical values, editorial guidelines and self-regulation in the newsrooms is essential. Most of all, journalists should acknowledge unethical practices and be more willing to change. This is probably the biggest challenge.
Similarly, media in private ownership is no bad thing, but when business interests encourage selling information or exchanging it for government favours it is unacceptable. Unless media are willing to change, government has an obligation to regulate media and punish this practice. But this is unlikely to happen. There are existing laws which should apply, but they are not implemented or enforced.
Mexico appears to be a developed country with a robust democracy, but on closer examination it remains a country in transition. Strengthening institutions, fighting corruption, establishing clear rules and regulations, promoting transparency and accountability, ending the culture of impunity, along with civil participation and the development of an independent media, are needed to bring about a new flourishing of democracy in the country.
Buying compliance: Government advertising and soft censorship in México, http://www.ife.org.mx/archivos2/DS/recopilacion/JGEor201401-24ac_01P04-01×01.pdf
Selected interviews http://www.diputados.gob.mx/virtual/notmex/prenedos.htm