Narcos Kill Mexican Journalists. Politicos Buy Off Their Bosses
Mexico’s a dangerous place for journalists, who are often targeted by drug cartels. There’s another, more insidious threat to press freedom -- one that may influence who wins power in next year’s elections.
It comes from politicians, and their money.
Advertising funded from the public purse has soared in the past decade. The federal government spent more than double its publicity budget last year, running up a tab of about $540 million even as it cut education spending and support for farmers.
There are unofficial channels for ensuring a positive press, too -- described in interviews by current and former public officials, and media employees. Front-page space in some newspapers is negotiable. Popular but critical voices on the radio get fired. On TV, soap-opera characters break off from romantic intrigues to point out what a good job local authorities have done at improving the street-lighting.
Mexico has a media that’s “addicted to public money,” said Carlos Ugalde, who used to run the country’s electoral agency.
‘You’ll Pay Me’
That extends well beyond on-the-books spending. What else is going on? Ugalde explains. “If you’re a candidate, and I’m the owner of a radio station, you’ll pay me 15,000 pesos for an interview,” he said. “You’ll pay me in cash, obviously.”
Prices are higher at the national level, where Mexico holds presidential elections in July. The incumbent, Enrique Pena Nieto, can’t run again and is deeply unpopular. Still, analysts aren’t ruling his PRI party out of contention, and its media reach is one reason why.
“The government is going to have an edge in terms of the capacity to influence the electorate,” including via the media, said Carlos Bravo, a political scientist at Mexico City’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching. Ugalde said that all political parties are buying media, but the PRI -- which also holds the largest number of state governorships -- can commandeer more resources.
Media offices at the presidency and the PRI both said in e-mailed responses to questions that they fully respect press freedom as a pillar of Mexican democracy. The PRI said that it’s legally entitled to more airtime as the largest party, and doesn’t get any special privileges beyond that.
Still, several prominent critics of Pena Nieto and the PRI have lost their jobs. In 2015, radio personality Carmen Aristegui was sacked from her program Noticias MVS after breaking a story about the president’s wife buying a luxury home from a federal contractor. MVS denied it had come under government pressure, and a government-appointed comptroller found no wrongdoing by the first lady.
In October, Ricardo Raphael and his co-host were fired from their show after accusing the PRI of trying to benefit politically from two deadly earthquakes.
Raphael said in an interview that he’s convinced government ads received by his employer were “the principal argument for our departure.” The broadcaster, NRM Comunicaciones, denies the accusation and said in a statement that the presenters were fired as part of wider job-cuts. The president’s office said no political pressure was applied, and pointed out that the journalists who were fired are still appearing on state-owned media.