Media Linked to Power
Throughout the Mexican history mass media have always had a more political than purely informative character. One of the first researchers looking at Mexican media is Fátima Fernández Christlieb. In 1982, she stipulated that each media outlet goes through a ‘political momentum’ when it is being established and then further develops. This happens mainly because of the necessities of certain individuals or groups to create media, ally with, or gain power over other media to influence political processes, or to exclude rivals or political opponents.
Typical examples are the two iconic daily newspapers El Universal (founded in 1916) and Excélsior (founded in 1917 and relaunched in 2006), which emerged to support political factions after the Mexican Revolution, being linked to one or another political elite, especially visible during election periods.
Although Mexico is going through a so-called “democratic transition” for twenty years now, the pattern described by Fátima Fernández Christlieb has not changed much. Within a more and more confusing environment, relentless competition and political incivility ahead of the next 2018 presidential elections, the phenomenon repeats itself through a wave of new web portals, attacks against professional journalism and critical journalists, which often ends up with their assassinations.
As a proof for this tragic circumstances, Mexico very often appears top on the lists of countries with the highest number of violent deaths of journalists, together with failed states such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the government presents the country as one with functional institutions and with a political elite that defends the Freedoms of Expression and the media.
According to the official governmental discourse, the greatest enemies of the journalists are drug dealers and criminals. Reports from international organizations contradict this claim and point out to public officials and state agents as being responsible for more than half of the aggressions. In a report published in The New York Times In June 2017, the government of Enrique Peña Nieto was accused of using sophisticated counterterrorism software to tap and surveil personal communication of journalists and social activists at a large scale.
Modern Press and Revolution
Article 6º from the 1917 Mexican Constitution, which is still valid, guarantees press freedom and forbids censorship. Nevertheless political leaders have instrumentalized media for gaining power ever since. The opponent political factions during the Mexican Revolution were the first to create newsletters in large copies: El Universal and Excélsior.
After the first radio transmission tests in 1921, the establishment of the commercial radio stations began in 1922. As a new means of mass communication, the radio played a very important role in empowering the faction of the Sonoran leaders Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles. During the 1930s they would become a means of the revolutionary education policy of the then Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas, who pushed for literacy and education of the Mexican farmers.
The radio spread rapidly all over the country, but it also brought the danger of weakening the central power while strengthening local leaders. The federal government tried to control these local figures, and in its support, in 1950 the television as a new media showed up. While being much more expensive to operate, it turned out to be also more influential and most importantly it limited the access for many participants. The concession system for the frequencies was controlled by the State, which facilitated the political homogenization of content from very early on. This turned out as a big advantage for the president at the time Miguel Alemán and his political allies.
From Tlatelolco to the Defeat of the Political Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)
The massive media control was proven in the case of the Tlatelolco massacre. It happened in Mexico City on the 2nd of October 1968 when many students were assassinated by the army following orders of the then Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. Only Excélsior, then run by the journalist Julio Scherer, published some information which questioned the official version of the story that the military responded only after being attacked by rebel communists’ gunmen. The newspaper also questioned the very low number of reported victims.
During the first half of the 1970s, the editorial policy of Excélsior was shifting from being loyal to the system to more critical journalism, until 1976, when the then Mexican president Luis Echeverría orchestrated a coup, which pulled the journal back into government’s orbit. Expelled from Excélsior, the team around Scherer founded Proceso, the weekly journal, which remained the main and sometimes the only representation of investigative journalism in the country for almost two decades. Boycotted by the government, Proceso was not receiving public revenues from government advertising. This is well depicted by the famous phrase from the then Mexican president José López Portillo: “No pago para que me peguen” (Spanish for: I won’t pay to be beaten.). Under these circumstances, Proceso developed a new funding model, not very common at the time for the region: selling its newsletter as a main source of income.
Proceso and the daily newspaper La Jornada, created by another group of journalists that left Excélsior, became the only independent media in a very critical moment for the political party PRI, short from Partido Revolucionario Insitutcional (Spanish for: Institutional Revolutionary Party). The PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari won the 1988 presidential elections, allegedly by fraud, after most of the population had informed itself through the television network Televisa, whose owner, Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, defined himself publicly as a soldier of PRI.
For the elections in January 1994, when the influence of the guerrilla uprising Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Spanish for: Zapatista National Liberation Army) was more influential, two additional journals escaped the influence of the government with their editorial policy: Reforma and El Financiero, both linked to business sectors.
Although these two dailies did not reach the wider population, they targeted successfully the political and intellectual circles involved in decision-making. The media landscape blossomed, furthering the crisis of PRI’s ruling system: political opponents were able to get elected for the Mexico City Congress, and in 1997, for the first time, the Congress was functioning without PRI majority, followed by the defeat of the PRI presidential candidate in 2000 and thus interrupting the PRI hegemony after 71 years.
The Wrong Transition
Although the Mexican presidency was then held by another political party for twelve years (PAN: Partido de Acción Nacional) – until in 2012 the PRI managed a huge comeback with its candidate Enrique Peña Nieto – the situation in the media sector has not changed at all. Even worse, the most influential business groups accelerated the concentration of media ownership.
At the beginning of the 21st century several laws had been passed to allow access to information and promote transparency, but these measures did not serve their purpose since the official authorities would simply claim data is nonexistent or classify it as confidential for security reasons.
Some media outlets engage in investigative journalism and also have resources to finance it, but only occasionally and almost never ahead of elections. Other media outlets that want to do investigative journalism at any time, lack the resources. Group of journalists organize themselves in collectives and apply for funding from international donors, which has helped investigative journalism to deliver more than ever, but the results are still limited in reach as they are published on online only, lacking the still dominant pervasiveness of traditional printed media, radio or television.
In 2016 eleven journalists were murdered and by October 2017 eleven more. This sums up to 38 murdered journalists in the current six-year presidential term. In December 2017, the UN and Inter-American Human Rights Commission declared that journalism in Mexico is being exercised under conditions of terror.
The ongoing presidential campaign for the July 2018 elections seems to be a déjà vu from the post-revolutionary period, with the media outlets closely aligning their editorial policy with the factions that are expected to gain or regain the political power.
Chronological History of Mexico
1325 Funding of the Mexican city -Tenochtitlán.
1519 Hernán Cortés starts the conquest of Mexico.
1521 The fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlán.
1810 Start of the Independence War against Spain.
1821 Independence of Mexico.
1836 Mexico loses the War of Texas.
1846-48 United States invasion. Loss of Texas, New Mexico and High California.
1857 Separation of Church and State with the Constitution of Benito Juárez.
1861-67 Invasion and defeat of the French.
1910 Start of the Mexican Revolution.
1917 Approval of the actual Constitution.
1919 The murder of Emiliano Zapata.
1926-29 Cristero War.
1929 Start of the era of PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) as a dominant political party.
1938 Lázaro Cárdenas nationalizes the oil industry.
1968 Student movement and massacre of the 2nd of October.
1988 Carlos Salinas de Gortari becomes a President with electoral fraud.
2000 PRI loses the Presidency for the first time. The conservative party PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) wins.
2006 Felipe Calderón becomes a president with 0.5% of the votes in favor, with accusations of electoral fraud.
2007 Calderón launches the “war on drugs”. The homicide rate and number of disappearances rises enormously.
2012 PRI regains the Presidency with Enrique Peña Nieto.
2014 The White House scandal, the disappearances of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa and the massacres of Tlatlaya, Apatzingán and Tanhuato.