Photographer: YURI CORTEZ/AFP

Narcos Kill Mexican Journalists. Politicos Buy Off Their Bosses

Updated on
  • Media hooked on political cash as government ad spending soars
  • Ruling PRI has widest reach; Amlo win could trigger backlash

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.

‘Principal Argument’

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.

Xochitl Galvez

Photographer: Juan Carlos Reyes Garcia/AP Photo

Xochitl Galvez, from the opposition PAN party, describes how the process can look from a politician’s side. She’s run for several posts, and was elected president of Mexico City’s Miguel Hidalgo borough in 2015. Galvez says the press is so used to political money that they don’t always wait for officials to come to them.

She showed several glossy pamphlets she said she’d received from at least four media outlets, offering packages including interviews in return for money.

‘We Are Condemned’

When Galvez was running for governor of Hidalgo state in 2010, she says, a media conglomerate offered to interview her and cover her events for 22 million pesos ($1.1 million) -- cash only, because Mexican law bars individual candidates from paying for radio and TV publicity. During the borough campaign, she said, a national newspaper offered to publish a poll that would show her catching up with the front-runner. The price quoted was 1.5 million pesos.

“As long as money is what allows politicians to win, we are condemned to having idiotic and corrupt politicians,” Galvez said. She said she always turned down such offers, and asked that the media outlets not be identified, for fear of retaliation.

In the past, Mexico’s rulers kept the press on a tight leash by Latin American standards. Today, there’s a new generation of online media, nimbler and with less overhead, that frequently challenges authority. But what’s also new is the role of government advertising, which has helped turn censorship into self-censorship at most of the bigger groups, Ugalde says.

Mexico’s top court is due to hear a case in two weeks’ time charging Congress with failing to oversee the government’s spending on publicity. The lack of regulation is channeling fiscal resources to media that side with the administration, and away from more critical outlets, Supreme Court Justice Arturo Zaldivar wrote this week.

At least 10 senior journalists and government press officers told Bloomberg News that federal officials have used subtle and not-so-subtle ways of shaping content. They range from threatening to pull ads, to ordering up tailored coverage including front-page photos.

On TV, political content seeps beyond the news programs. While there’s no way of knowing whether money was involved, “The Color of Passion,” a telenovela broadcast by Televisa SA, has triggered mockery on Mexican social media. The tough detective hero gushed over new highways built by the then-governor of Puebla state, Rafael Moreno Valle; in another episode, a different character points out how well-lit the downtown area is nowadays.

Televisa said in an e-mailed response to questions that “in no way do any advertisers, public or private, influence our editorial line.”

Talking Points

Mexico’s electoral institute has investigated various accusations of improper campaigning by Moreno Valle, who’s said he wants to be the PAN candidate for president. The probes have mostly cleared him of any wrongdoing, though some are ongoing and none of them encompassed the soap opera. A publicity agency was twice fined for improperly placing promotional material in TV and print media on Moreno Valle’s behalf.

Sometimes, Mexican audiences have revolted against what they see as manipulation.

Last year Andrea Legarreta, the popular host of Televisa SA’s morning gossip program “Hoy,” tried to explain how the peso’s plunge -- which was mostly being reported as bad news for the country -- could actually help Mexican families. Then she acknowledged on air that she didn’t fully understand her own argument. A twitter storm erupted, during which Legarreta reportedly admitted that she and other news presenters are often told what to say by advertisers -- but that post was soon erased. Televisa said that Legarreta didn’t say some of the things attributed to her.

Televisa earns about 9 percent of its advertising revenue from the federal government, according to earnings reports and data from Fundar, a watchdog that tracks the government’s spending. The figure for TV Azteca, another major broadcaster, was 10 percent.

Among newspapers, El Universal got the most government money for print ads -- about 190 million pesos in 2016, according to Fundar. The paper has come under fire from anti-corruption campaigners, who objected to its negative coverage of their efforts. Half a dozen columnists quit in protest. Some of those have subsequently written for the paper again after new management reached out to say there was room to enhance the paper’s coverage, said David Aponte, El Universal’s editorial director.

El Financiero, which has a content partnership with Bloomberg News, received 52 million pesos from the federal government for print ads, ranking ninth.

‘Mafia of Power’

From a business perspective, entanglement in politics carries risks as well as rewards. Readers or viewers can look elsewhere -- and so could new political bosses.

Daniel Kerner, head of Latin America at the risk analyst Eurasia Group, doesn’t think that the PRI’s sway over media will help the party retain power next year -- because, he says, too many Mexicans are wise to it. But he says media bosses should be concerned about the early election frontrunner, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador has accused Mexico’s media of helping to cheat him out of election victories in the past -- in 2014, for example, he called Televisa part of the “mafia of power.”

Plenty of the electorate share that view of the media, Kerner said. So a Lopez Obrador election win “could have actual implications for their business model.”

— With assistance by Andrea Navarro

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