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Mexico's Press Guards its Freedom

Some journalists say the government is more liberal, others say controls have tightened. TESTING LIMITS

SERGIO AGUAYO QUEZADA was cut off in mid-sentence.On Aug. 16, Mexico's government-run television network pulled the plug four minutes and 40 seconds into the 15-minute daily news program "Television Universitaria." A network logo popped on the screen. Seconds later, "Salt and Pepper" an innocuous show on cooking recipes began. "It was a violation of our basic human right to freedom of expression and our right to have access to the media," says Mr. Aguayo, president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights. At the time of the interruption, Aguayo was being interviewed along with another member of the academy about his organization's "fight for democracy" to ensure "clean and free elections" as electoral observers of the Aug. 18 legislative elections. He made no comments about the government, nor any party or candidate. Imevision spokesman Roberto Gonzalez calls the complaint a "tempest in a teapot." The program was yanked, he says, because it violated federal laws prohibiting the broadcast of party propaganda in the three days before the election. "The program started with images of Fausto Zapata [the ruling party's candidate for governor in the state of San Luis Potosi]. We have to be careful to be in accord with electoral laws." Aguayo has submitted the case to the National Commission on Human Rights, an ombudsman agency set up last year by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Through June, the commission had looked at some 42 cases which dealt primarily with serious violations such as murder and illegal detention of journalists. If it decides to rule on Aguayo's censorship complaint, it could open a new official forum for those who believe they've been censured. Flagrant direct censorship is rare in Mexico. Typically, it's more subtle, say journalists interviewed. Indeed, Aguayo and others say the long-term trend is for more and more freedom of expression in Mexico. Among the 30 daily newspapers and dozens of magazines sold in Mexico, political analysts cite the weekly magazine Proceso and the leading financial daily El Financiero and left-leaning newspaper La Jornada as the few that freely criticize the government. "If it was a US publication, Proceso would have been sued out of business a long time ago," opines Sergio Sarmiento, a syndicated columnist and radio news host. It hasn't, he says, because Mexican laws make libel suits difficult to win. El Financiero columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio agrees "it is easier for causes to get their views expressed in the media now." But he adds: "It's freedom of expression within the framework of a very liberal authoritarian regime." Mr. Salinas's foreign press spokesman Leonardo Ffrench Iduarte responds that the Salinas administration is the "greatest promoter and defender of press freedom. It's the best way for the president to accurately know what Mexicans want and think." Since Salinas came to office in 1988, says Mr. Ffrench, several steps have been taken to enhance free speech. He cites the attempted privatization of the state newsprint company Pipsa, long criticized as a monopoly used to punish critical periodicals by withholding paper. But the sale failed when a majority of the publishers balked, unwilling to give up the subsidies provided by Pipsa. However, in 1989 Salinas did allow importation of newsprint which analysts say effectively diminishes any role Pipsa may have in controlling the press. Ffrench also points out that Salinas's privatization program includes selling some state-owned television and radio stations. Mexican journalists don't dispute these points. But they say there is also much tighter control on information coming from the government under Salinas. "In the last administration, you could argue with a particular ministry or spokesman about why something was censured or hushed up. Now, all orders seem to come from the presidency. And there's no discussion," says Veronica Ortiz Iawrenz, a radio and television talk-show host who claims to have lost several positions due to government intervention. "We're witnessing a transformation of the press office of the president into the ministry of propaganda," says Riva Palacio. A high-level government official who requests anonymity, calls such characterizations "false. There are 70-80 press offices in various government ministries and agencies. It's impossible to have such total control." But another government official says that the president's press officer, Otto Granados Roldan, who meets with Salinas daily, is the "unofficial minister of information. He has more power than past officials in his position." Columnist Sarmiento says information management and phone calls from government officials attempting to influence the direction an article takes are just "part of the game.... Trying to manipulate public opinion, that's the role of a press officer in Mexico or Moscow or Washington. You're going to get pressure if you publish certain things. Governments and officials will try to protect their interests...." Other tactics, such as bribes, haven't disappeared under Salinas, say journalists here. Journalists' low wages are still sometimes subsidized by under-the- counter government payments known as embutes, says Riva Palacio. The payments aren't in exchange for any specific article but to "help" poorly-paid professionals. Also in the name of bolstering wages, many newspapers give reporters a 15 percent sales commission on advertisements placed by government ministries the reporters cover. This practice has a tendency to inhibit the publication of news which might lead advertisers to go elsewhere. Withholding advertising is seen as a weapon the government can employ to punish unsupportive media. "The government has the right to advertise where it wants to. To support those that attack you would be illogical," says one government official. Sarmiento estimates that many newspapers receive 40-60 percent of their advertising revenues from state corporations or agencies. He says self-censorship is more common than direct government censorship. The problems are "based more on the media owners' fears than actual government pressure." TV and radio station owners who must renew their concessions periodically are often afraid of losing broadcast rights if they offend the wrong government official. News broadcasts of the only commercial network, Televisa, have a reputation of being more pro-government than the state-run Imevision. Indeed, one young Mexican woman, when asked casually about her news-viewing habits, insisted that Televisa was the government-run station and Imevision was the independent commercial network. "If a station owner receives negative feedback from a government official, whether the program host gets fired or not depends on how close to [or dependent on] that government official the owner is," says Sarmiento. For example, in a recent broadcast over a 20-station radio network, Sarmiento criticized the ruling party's candidate in the Guanjuato state elections. An upset station owner called from his car phone objecting to such analysis. "He said he'd promised Ramon Aguirre his station would support him. I explained to the network I hadn't attacked Aguirre personally, the comments were made in the context of an analysis of the three candidates. The network backed me up." Veronica Ortiz wasn't as fortunate. Her five-year-old weekly talk show on state-run Channel 11 came to an end a few months after Salinas took office. "When Salinas came into office, the management changed. We were told things were opening up," she recalls. "So, I did two very critical shows - one on external debt and another on a US-Mexico free trade agreement. Empty seats were left on the set when government officials who'd confirmed as guests, didn't show up." Within days, her show was canceled. "I was told only that my 'cycle at Channel 11 had been completed.' Nobody could explain to me what that meant. But I was out of work. You can't prove it's political censorship because it's not done directly," Ms. Ortiz says. She now works various less-prestigious jobs, including talk- show host for a low-power university radio station and as a press officer for the Mexican Academy of Human Rights. Presidential spokesman Ffrench contends businesses often use the government for an excuse when firing journalists for poor ratings. ve yet to see one of these mysterious government officials publicly named who supposedly engineered a journalist's downfall."

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