Free Trade And Freedom Of The Press?

Mexico City's newest daily newspaper is aptly named: Reforma. While many other papers are relegating stories on the fraud-tainted Nov. 28 elections in Yucatan state to inside pages, Reforma keeps blasting the government with front-page articles calling the scandal a "political soap opera." Much of Mexico's media is under the government's thumb, but the $50 million startup owned by Alejandro Junco de la Vega, an independent-minded Monterrey publisher, is not afraid to speak out.

That's good news. Reforma is a front-runner in forging a new kind of journalism in Mexico. As free trade remakes the country's economy, Mexicans are demanding a more open flow of information. It will be difficult to achieve. Mexico's government says it is implementing political reforms to make the country more democratic, but journalists from the tightly controlled radio and TV stations are still being hassled for interviewing opposition leaders. The government goes easier on print journalists, partly because only about 15% of Mexicans--the political and economic elite--read newspapers and magazines.

GREASED PALMS. For decades, the Mexican media have had an unhealthy, sometimes incestuous relationship with the government. Broadcasters have been loath to criticize official policies because radio and TV concessions are easily yanked away. Underpaid reporters used to accept cash-stuffed envelopes from government agencies or political parties to put a certain spin on news. Even today, the government inserts paid articles in many newspapers, forking over as much as $30,000 for a bylined front-page story. In many cases, more than half of the ad revenue comes from the state. "They depend so much on the government that a small tightening of the screws is enough to influence coverage," says Rafael Rodriguez Casta neda, the managing editor of Proceso magazine.But that may soon change. Increased cross-border investment under NAFTA could generate significant new sources of advertising in Mexico. Reforma's Sunday edition, for example, is packed with ads from stores in Texas. Financial independence will make editorial independence possible. "Economic reform in an authoritarian state like Mexico weakens the system and opens up opportunities for other sources of power," says Raymundo Riva Palacio, news editor of leading financial daily El Financiero.

Some of the Mexican media's new-found independence is due to government initiatives. A year ago, the Salinas Administration banned federal cash payments to journalists and started charging them for their expenses on presidential trips. "The aim is to make the relationship between government and media more transparent," says Gabriel Guerra, deputy presidential press secretary. However, the practice of paying off reporters is still widespread at the local and state levels.

LONG FIGHT. Next year's presidential elections will offer a serious test of Mexico's media freedom. In September, noted commentator Miguel Angel Granados Chapa lost his radio show after he aired an interview with opposition presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who many believe was the real winner of the 1988 elections. Granados says he was dropped because regulators threatened to cancel one of the radio network's seven concessions. "The government is extremely concerned over what radio audiences hear on the air, because that is where the ruling party gets most of its votes," he says.

Unleashing Mexico's long-subdued media will be a long process. Over two decades, Junco's Monterrey daily has editorialized against everything from the expropriation of farm lands to nationalizing banks. Those views netted him government harassment and some time in exile. But times are changing. `We've come a long way," marvels Junco. "Just a few years ago, I wouldn't have dreamed that we could start a new newspaper in Mexico City without being considered an enemy of the government." The question now is how well the country's authorities will deal with increased scrutiny from the press.

Geri Smith in Mexico City

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