Landmark Media Regulations Expose the Price of Staying on Air in Mexico

On April 18th, the Commission of Governance within Mexico’s Congress made a landmark decision by approving the highly debated “Social Communication Law” after years of lobbying by various free press advocacy groups.

According to Univision, the law was proposed with the intention of increasing governmental regulations over lucrative advertising contracts signed between political figures and mass media outlets. The law would also allow for the release of the total amount spent on these contracts as well as the name of the dealings’ recipients.

However, the bill is considered to be largely ineffective as it fails to stem the flow of capital directed toward the media during election periods. Instead, the law would only allow federal agencies to monitor advertising campaigns in order to judge whether they meet standards of “efficiency… transparency and honesty.”

Despite the allegations that this law was simply passed to appease increasing pressure from the public, its importance lies in the international conversation it sparked on the Mexican government’s significant influence over the mass media.

In light of this debate, several investigative reports conducted in years past have recaptured the attention of global audiences, as they are amongst the few that were able to uncover the lucrative business of government ads and their role in creating a culture of self-censorship.

The Case of “El Mañana” newspaper

In August 2017, the Columbia Journalism Review published an extensive report that exposed the government’s multimillion-dollar publicity budget and the ways in which it was strategically spent to shape news content. In the piece, the case of “El Mañana” newspaper, a small print publication based in the border town of Nueva Laredo, is used as a prime example of such disingenuous practices.

After the local mayoral elections in June 2016, El Mañana naturally turned its attention toward the newly elected politician, Enrique Rivas, seeking to report on his future policies, appointed cabinet and political past.

However, within their coverage of Rivas, the newspaper published stories which alleged several of his family members, as well as a previously convicted police chief, had been given high-ranking administrative positions. Their investigations also uncovered that over $6.6 million of his budget was attributed to publicity and communications rather than social programs.

In a swift response, Rivas’ administration stated in a local press conference that they would withdraw all official advertising from the publication citing that the newspaper “tried to extort 2.5 million pesos per month in exchange for positive coverage.”

Furthermore, he accused executives of secretly attempting to receive well-paying government positions within his administration. Rivas made clear he would “not…allocate public resources to people who are mercenaries of information.”

During an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Samuel Flores, assistant managing director at El Mañana, denied the accusations put forward by Rivas as he stated that his publication would never sacrifice its integrity by selling editorial content. The managing director saw Rivas’s actions against El Mañana as a means to defame the newspaper in retribution for their critical reporting on his administration.

The case of El Mañana newspaper exposed “the practice of awarding or withholding government advertising in exchange for editorial influence,” which, in recent times, has proven to be Mexican politicians’ preferred tactic of soft censorship.

According to a report released by Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post, Mexican media outlets repeatedly sign lucrative government advertising contracts that contribute millions of dollars to their limited budgets. As a result, a number of the country’s largest newspapers and broadcast news channels have become economically dependent on the state to maintain their operations.

Grisel Salazar, media scholar at CIDE University, told Al Jazeera that, while government-funded ads are not themselves a problem, they do in fact pose a threat when used as leverage by the government, and, in turn, becoming  an “exchange currency that can be used to either punish or reward.”

Director of Animal Politico Daniel Moreno evoked similar concerns, as he stated that the significant amount of revenue received from the government created a fairly straightforward conflict of interest: “If your main client is the government, you cannot criticise the government. Because if that government pulls the plug, your business cannot survive.”

In recent years, the problem has become increasingly dire. According to The New York Times, current president Enrique Peña Nieto spent over $2 billion in federal funds toward bolstering his various public relations campaigns; more than any past president.

Critics of Peña Nieto’s media strategy have stated that the commander in chief has created a “branding juggernaut,” which allows the state to suppress investigative reporting and push for the publication of positive or “soft-news.”

Enrique Krauze, editor for the magazine “Letras Libres” (Free letters), told The New York Times that if a journalist wanted to write a piece critical of the government they would receive no financial or editorial support.

This is due to the fact that government advertising contracts are signed with the promise of self-censorship. In some cases, press secretaries even resort to explicitly demanding favorable coverage as part of the deal.

Last year, the problem of soft censorship reached its peak as it was reported that members of Peña Nieto’s administration met with journalists and editors from the newspaper “Milenio” in order to force them to take down a story critical of a national anti-hunger initiative.

Once Milenio complied with the government’s orders, it stated that the decision was made independently as the article proved to be inaccurate and unfairly defamed government officials. However, the public did not believe their statements and cited foul-play on the part of Peña Nieto’s government, who has become renowned for manipulating media outlets since his times as governor.

A history of Peña Nieto’s strategic use of the media

For the majority of Mexicans who receive their daily news from broadcast TV, they will undoubtedly be familiar with Noticiero Televisa, a popular flagship news program. Nor will they be oblivious to the fact that most of their headlines favor Peña Nieto, as the intimate relationship between his administration and media broadcaster has been repeatedly exposed.

In 2012, The Guardian published a report alleging that during the previous congressional election, the candidate for governor-now turned President Enrique Peña Nieto helped create a covert unit within Televisa in order to bolster his campaign’s popularity. “Team Hancock,” as the group was called, was given the responsibility of commissioning reports that were favorable toward his candidacy and which defamed his rivals.

The accusations were put forward after official documents accessed by The Guardian exposed lucrative contracts signed between Peña Nieto’s campaign and Televisa’s executives. These explicitly dictated how Televisa’s journalists should report on the candidate in order to increase his popularity among voters leading up to the election.

The resulting victory in the 2009 congressional elections cemented Peña Nieto’s strategy of media collaboration. As a result, he maintained a close relationship with Televisa during his bid for the presidency in hopes of using the network’s influence in his favor.

According to other articles published by The Guardian, Televisa was accused of attributing the majority of its coverage during the 2012 presidential race to the campaign of the current president causing many his rivals to brand him as a “TV Product.”

Despite Peña Nieto promising to bring ad spending down after being accused of clientelism during his campaign, he has consistently surpassed annual advertising budgets throughout the past 6 years.

Therefore, given the supposedly meaningless spending regulations passed by Congress in April, it seems as though Peña Nieto’s strategy of soft censorship will continue uninhibited. What remains to be determined is if, after the next elections on July 1st, Mexico’s next president will follow in his footsteps.

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