Protecting Reporters and Improving Journalism in Mexico

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Aug 29, 2019
by Martin Silva Rey
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Protecting Reporters and Improving Journalism in Mexico

Political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor outlines ways to improve the lives and work of journalists in Mexico, “one of the world’s deadliest countries for the media” Political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor at Salzburg Global Seminar

“Although not at war, Mexico is one of the world’s deadliest countries for the media…” a statement by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reports. “Journalists who cover sensitive political stories or organized crime are warned, threatened, and often gunned down in cold blood. Some flee abroad as the only way to ensure their survival, while others are abducted and never seen again…” However, this grim reality is not the sole threat to Mexican democracy.

Ownership of the media is hugely concentrated in the country, with just two media groups – Televisa and TV Azteca – owning almost all the TV channels. “The almost traditional concentration of a lot of power in the hands of very few media magnates and politicians also comes as a result of blatant regulatory flaws,” a study by the Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) says.

Political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor is concerned about the freedom of the press and the right to information in his country. He is an associate professor and the coordinator of the journalism program at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) in Mexico City—a public research center specialized in social sciences. For him, the best way to understand the de facto lack of freedom of the press in Mexico is “through the business model or the financial sustainability of media outlets.”

He says, “For a really long time now—decades—most of the media outlets in Mexico have built into their very business model the existence of…. a large pool of resources that comes from public coffers… Public money, in general, has become a key source of funding for the media.”

This has created a number of problems, according to Bravo Regidor. He says, “This has been seen as a way of control; or at least influence, or pressure upon editorial criteria, or upon journalistic independence. And of course, to a very large extent, it has—although it doesn't work that openly, or that transparently—but it certainly has been an instrument for the powers that be so to speak to influence media coverage. And this, of course, has produced a lot of distrust among the public regarding how true the media are, how reliable information is, how independent journalists really are…”

According to Bravo Regidor , the situation didn’t get any better with the advent of democracy—rather the opposite. “Mexico became a democracy with the turn of the [21st] century,” Bravo Regidor explains. “And with the turn of the century, we also had a very important phenomenon that impacted [the media] in a very significant way, which was the digital revolution. All over the world, the digital revolution really messed up the traditional business model of media outlets… Mexican newspapers started, on the one hand, feeling the heat of the digital revolution; and on the other hand, finding ways to go around it through public resources…”

A study conducted by MOM Mexico—a partnership between RSF and Centro Nacional de Comunicación Social—revealed, “11 families control more than half—24 out of the 42—of the most important media outlets with a major audience share and they receive half of the budget for government advertising.” Moreover, in 84% of cases, “the owners have family or business relationships with well-known politicians.”

Analyzing 42 Mexican media outlets, the study also determined 38 “gain significant revenues from government advertising and are thus depending on it,” and disclosed although more than 1,000 companies compete for the advertising funds, only 10 business groups receive one half of the total.

Bravo Regidor says, “There's a whole lot of expressions, a whole vocabulary in Mexico to talk about [media which rely on public funds]: “Prensa vendida,” like “the sold press”; or “los chayoteros,” which pretty much means journalists or people who work in the media who receive money to remain quiet about certain things, or attack… a rival politician…

“This has been happening for a long time. But what's new is now, I mean in the last 30 years, a number of independent outlets have managed to become financially viable without relying so much on public money. These are what we call the critical or independent media. These critical or independent media developed a certain relationship with their audience since they were critical of the powers that be regardless of the party in power…”

In 2018, longstanding opposition politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador was sworn in as President of Mexico. This presented a new challenge for independent media, according to Bravo Regidor.

“In many ways… most of the critical or independent media ended up being seen as pro-López Obrador because they were critical of current governments. But in 2018, López Obrador won. And this has represented for this sort of outlets quite a dilemma, because on the one hand, well, they're trying to do what they have always done—be critical, be independent—but now it turns out that the president who won is favored or approved or sympathized with by a large majority of the population…

“So they are in this sort of dilemma or transition process where they need to develop like a new voice, or new coverage projects, in order to remain critical and independent—but at the same time not alienate their own audience…”

However, López Obrador’s anti-press rhetoric now threatens the activity of these independent outlets, many of which once stood close to him. In an article published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the organization’s representative in Mexico pointed out “López Obrador has attacked critical journalists and commentators for being ‘conservative,’ ‘neo-liberal,’ and ‘fifi’ – meaning elitist or out-of-touch. He and some members of his cabinet have singled out several journalists and outlets, most prominently the Mexico City newspaper Reforma…”

“President López Obrador has a very thin skin in terms of accepting criticism or accepting unfavorable news. So he has developed this habit of… in his words, even though he's [the] president, he still has the right to exercise his own freedom of expression, or his right to reply,” Bravo Regidor says.

“What Lopez Obrador has been doing is mobilize that old lack of trust or mistrust [in] the media—because of its reliance upon public funds—now to actually weaponize it against the very media outlets that have never been over-reliant on public funds to attack them as unreliable. I mean it's quite a movement, but it's been successful. So in a way, he is not addressing the trust deficit—he's using it as a political tool to attack the media that do not conform to his views, or that have a more critical editorial line regarding his government.”  

In a country where at least 50 journalists have been killed since 1992, López Obrador’s delegitimizing treatment of journalists triggers new fears and incentivizes self-censorship–-already a common practice in the country. “There’s a lot to be done,” Bravo Regidor concludes on the situation of the media and journalists in Mexico. He, in turn, proposes four measures to take.
Number one: address “the official publicity business.” Bravo Regidor says, “The law just institutionalizes the… the arbitrariness that the government has to allocate those funds so that law needs to be reformed or abolished and have a new one in which we really set rational criteria to allocate resources in terms of [government advertising].”

Number two: review media plurality. “Ownership is concentrated to a certain degree, which is also not good, and this is, of course, not something that is particular to Mexico – all across the world this is an issue,” says Bravo Regidor.

Number three: prevent violence against journalists. Bravo Regidor says, “I think in the case of Mexico, violence against journalists is like an ideal candidate to become one of those crimes in which the government decides that these crimes cannot go unpunished. And we need to send a message because particularly when it's a high profile journalist, this becomes very visible. So this could become a way of sending a signal of commitment to fight impunity.”

Number four: improve working conditions for reporters. “Sometimes they get paid by the piece of news [they write],” Bravo Regidor says. “They don't have social services, social rights, social security, pension plans, insurance, they have nothing of the kind. And that needs to change, because being a journalist in Mexico is very dangerous, and we can't afford to pay our journalists peanuts as we do, or turn the reporting job into such a precarious job if we want them to really tell us what what's going on…”

Bravo Regidor concedes there is a paradox, however, with change unlikely to come from a government which benefits from existing practices. He says, “There needs to be a lot more of civil society participation, and also… international pressures. There is a reputational effect here that can become a force of change. But also, if there starts to develop a constituency, a local constituency of NGOs, of social sectors, of relevant leadership voices, that starts inflicting a cost upon government inaction that might move things forward.”


Carlos Bravo Regidor attended the Salzburg Global Seminar program, Media, Democracy and Public Trust in a Post-Truth Era, part of the Salzburg Global Media and Public Trust Forum.