A virtually unregulated system of government advertising has distorted Mexico’s media landscape and corrupted the country’s media profession, according to a new report, Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico.
Mexico’s media today face great difficulties. Physical attacks are all-too common, the shadow of state control has not fully faded, market concentration is extreme, and most media outlets have advanced little towards a democratic model to serve as an impartial watchdog on actions of government and other societal actors.
Any discussion of Mexico’s media situation must begin by explicitly recognizing—and condemning—ongoing assaults on journalists. Mexico is among the world’s most dangerous countries to practice journalism. Since 2000, over 77 journalists have been murdered. Another 17 have disappeared. This terrible violence is widely documented by Mexican and international press freedom groups.
The impact of these attacks is very powerful and very clearly leads to widespread self-censorship. But more subtle means also and perhaps more widely constrain media freedom in Mexico. “Soft censorship,” or indirect government censorship, includes a variety of actions intended to influence media—short of closures, imprisonments, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on journalists or media facilities.
This report focuses primarily on financial aspects of official soft censorship: pressures to influence news coverage and shape the broad media landscape or the output of specific media outlets or individual journalists through biased, and/or nontransparent allocation or withholding of state/government media subsidies, advertising, and similar financial instruments.
In Mexico, the allocation of Government advertising is the more common tool to exert soft censorship and is an integral part of the country’s complicated media landscape. Absent precise and clear rules, it is a means to influence or even a tool to blackmail media owners and journalists. Federal and local governments use official advertising to shape media outlets’ editorial line and push partisan agendas. Opaque and arbitraryallocation of official advertising constrains pluralism and a diversity of voices by selectively funding media outlets that support officials and their policies.
Some media owners actively partner with politicians in a corrupt symbiosis that earns both power and profit. Many Mexican media outlets have become addicted to public money, corrupting basic journalistic ethics. Articles praising or criticizing specific politicians are often offered primarily as leverage to negotiate more lucrative government advertising contracts.
Mexico’s very high level of ownership concentration in the television industry (largely dominated by only two players) is an important aspect of the soft censorship landscape. The growing economic clout of these two media businesses has magnified their influence on the country’s political life. These dominant companies often skew nominally democratic debates towards their self-interest.
Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico offers an overview and detailed examples of how a virtually unregulated system of government advertising has distorted Mexico’s media landscape and corrupted the country’s media profession. Refusal to license community radio stations as a constraint on media freedom is also addressed. The report does find some reasons for hope in efforts in a few states and by some media outlets to instill new integrity in both official and journalistic practice—and in pledges, as yet unfulfilled, by Mexico’s president and legislators to enact genuine change.
Another cause for guarded optimism is the 2013 Constitutional Reform on Telecommunications, which has the potential to make a profound change in Mexico´s media landscape and generate greater pluralism and competitiveness. This report’s key recommendations are a launching point for wider reforms urgently needed to help Mexico’s media fulfill its proper role in promoting democracy, pluralism, and accountability—rather than serving as an empty vessel to be filled with and driven by government advertising.
The findings of this paper, Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico, are based on the results of the three-year (2010-2012) Official Publicity Project led by Fundar and the ARTICLE 19 Office for Mexico and Central America, with the support of the Open Society Foundations.
It follows two reports published in January: Soft Censorship: Strangling Serbia’s Media and Capturing Them Softly: Soft Censorship and State Capture in the Hungarian Media.