Journalists in Mexico face many dangers, especially when they’re covering the country’s ongoing drug war.
But journalism is not just under threat from cartels. There are structural problems deeply embedded in the political framework of the country, which have a daily effect on the production of Mexico’s journalism.
Since he came to power in 2012, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on government ads – airtime and print space dedicated to government self-promotion. He has spent more money on media advertising during his time in power than any other president in Mexico’s history.
Broadcasting giants like Televisa and Azteca both get around 10 percent of their ad revenue from the federal government. The country’s newspapers of record like Milenio, El Universal, Excelsior, rely on the government for millions of dollars to keep them going.
And when a media outlet relies so heavily on the government to keep it alive, investigative reporting, critical journalism, scoops and exposes are either diluted, deferred or censored – if journalists haven’t censored themselves already.
It’s a fairly straightforward paradox. If your main client is the government, you cannot criticise the government. Because if that government pulls the plug, your business cannot survive.
“It’s a fairly straightforward paradox. If your main client is the government, you cannot criticise the government. Because if that government pulls the plug, your business cannot survive,” says Daniel Moreno, director of independent news site Animal Politico.
The symbiotic relationship between the Mexican state and the press goes way back.
In the 1970s, President Lopez Portillo said of the media, ‘I don’t pay for them to beat me,’ and stopped government advertising in Proceso, the only major independent weekly.
Portillo was the leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, who ruled uninterrupted for 70 years, during which they were rarely held to account. When they were voted out in 2000, successive governments promised a freer press.
However, the complicity between the media and the state persisted.
Media watchdogs and civil society groups finally took the government to court over the issue and in 2017, the Supreme Court sided with them, demanding laws to curb ad spending and all money to be distributed in an unbiased way.
It sounds like progress, but those pushing for change say the bill is toothless.
“We got a big surprise last year when the Supreme Court recognised that the opacity and the lack of regulation in the governmental advertising has a direct impact in the freedom of speech in Mexico,” explains Justine Dupuy, Fundar Centre for Analysis & Research.
“Unfortunately, what we saw is that lawmakers pretended to meet the requirement, they passed a law, but they didn’t take this historic opportunity to change this perverse relationship and to create free media in the country,” Dupuy adds.
If the polls for the upcoming presidential election are to be believed, Mexicans, disenchanted both with the media establishment and the political one, will be voting the current government out of power.
According to media scholar, Grisel Salazar, “this inertia is something that has been at work for decades, it is very difficult to get out of it. The incentives for the media to carry on with this mode of self-preservation are just too strong, too powerful. That’s why it’s so difficult to put a stop to it.”
Whether the next Mexican leader changes a habit of a lifetime and cures media outlets of their addiction to government advertising remains to seen.
Daniel Moreno, director, Animal Politico
Sebastian Barragan, reporter, Aristegui Noticias
Grisel Salazar, media scholar, CIDE
Justine Dupuy, Fundar Centre for Analysis & Research
Source: Al Jazeera