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`Reforma' or No Reform in Mexico's Media

A battle pitting newspaper owners against vendors involves freedom of speech and government control

`PRIGIONE [The Vatican's Ambassador to Mexico] confesses!'' yells a grinning intellectual celebrity hawking the ``Reforma'' newspaper on a busy Mexico City avenue. ``What?'' questions a perplexed motorist stopped at a red light. ``Sure, it's Monsignor Prigione's duty to confess every day. But seriously, help us out; buy a Reforma from me because the newspaper vendors' union refuses to sell it.''

With that humor and enthusiasm, the columnist German Dehesa and his team of about 20 volunteers sell more than 2,000 papers a day. Since the boycott began on Nov. 1, Reforma has had 30 such employee-headed teams throughout the metropolitan area in an attempt to break the 22,000-member union's monopoly of street sales. So far, the effort is going well.

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What appears to be a simple dispute between union and management has added significance. Although not openly debated, it involves freedom of speech, government control of media, and Mexico's democratization.

That makes it important to the United States, since Congress passed NAFTA with the understanding that Mexican democratization would move forward. The national elections this past August showed that television was used mainly against democratization; it remains firmly committed to the control (now 65 years old) of the ruling party (PRI). The written press was thought to be free - a democratic counterweight - since it gave fairly even-handed electoral coverage.

But the print media are not the force they should be. Less than 10 percent of voters read newspapers. Even more important, there are more than 30 daily publications in Mexico City alone, most kept alive by government subsidies. This diffuses coverage and opinions to the extent that no prominence is allowed to emerge. No papers in Mexico have the influence of the New York Times or the Washington Post. The ``fourth estate'' is more like the fifth slum and the government would like to keep it that way.

Along came Reforma, founded a year ago this Sunday by the family that owns the prestigious and profitable El Norte, the leading newspaper of the northern industrial city of Monterrey. Reforma was different: It was (and is) financially independent, something less than a handful of other papers can say. It adopted a modern USA Today-style format - a welcome contrast to the unwieldy structure of many traditional Mexican papers. Most important, it attracted the best reporters and columnists by paying a living wage, which has won it the enmity of many media owners. Most other papers are giving scant coverage and less support to Reforma in the dispute with the vendors' union.

Reforma had made great progress before the boycott. It had 35,000 daily subscribers and was selling 40,000 through vendors (in a city where no serious papers have circulations of more than 130,000). Editorially it has been unbiased and inventive. Its public opinion polls have been accurate. Its election coverage, during the campaign and afterward, was more complete and easier to understand than that of any other paper. It has been scrupulously honest - perhaps too much so for its own good. On Sunday, Oct. 31, the day before President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was to give his last state-of-the-union address, it published a poll indicating that significantly less than half the people would believe what he said.

Many think it was not a coincidence that the following day, leaders of the vendors' union decided to boycott Reforma. Their excuses were flimsy: Reforma publishes every day and doesn't respect the five holidays that the union and other papers take off. It also has an aggressive subscription campaign that is taking sales away from vendors. Reforma wasn't asking vendors to work those five vacation days if they didn't want to; it would deliver to its subscribers and sell through selected stores. Every newspaper wants the most subscriptions it can get. In Mexico, many of the main ones advertise on television.

The rank-and-file vendors don't want the boycott. Our corner newsstand owner sells 40 to 50 Reformas a day; commissions amount to about three times the minimum daily wage here. Unfortunately, the mafia-like union checks twice a day to make sure he's not selling the paper.

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Knowing how chummy the government is with the vendors' union leaders (the president has breakfast with them on ``Newspaper Vendors' Day'' each year, this year at the president's residence), this boycott is probably indirect government harassment to change the independence of the paper's editorial policy. There is a long history of such government strong-arm tactics.

The paper has started to fight back by hiring its own vendors. They won't all be as witty as German Dehesa, but there's a chance that Reforma will emerge from the pack and that democracy will be the winner after all. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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