Mexico City, Mexico – On Valentine’s Day, Rosalba Amezcua, a business reporter for Mexico‘s Capital Media, received a call from her employer’s human resources department telling her she would need to pick up her paycheque personally.
As she walked in to work, she realized the cubicles had been reshuffled to arrange for lines of employees meeting one on one with attorneys. She was being discharged.
“It was a massacre. Everyone was getting laid off,” Amezcua told Al Jazeera. “When I walked back into the newsroom to say ‘farewell’, it was dead. All the cubicles were empty.”
Amezcua is one of hundreds of reporters, columnists and photographers laid off from newsrooms across Mexico since last year, when President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador telegraphed his intention to slash the government’s media advertising budget by 50 percent.
In April, he delivered on that plan, officially announcing the government’s media advertising budget would be cut by 50 percent from the previous year – and issuing guidelines on how the funds would be spent.
“The money will be distributed equally and will not again be used to reward or punish the media,” Lopez Obrador announced.
“But some believe the move – part of a more extensive package of austerity measures designed to cut government spending – will effectively weaken the press. “ When asked about the criticism at a recent press conference, Lopez Obrador denied that was his intention.
Mexico’s media industry first became dependent on government advertising in 1972, when private companies removed their advertising from a popular newspaper to punish it for being editorially supportive of government economic reforms. Then-President Luis Echeverria saved the day by filling the gaps with government ads.
Over the years, this practice grew, allowing the government to indirectly punish media outlets by purchasing fewer ads – or reward them by placing more.
“This created a situation in which Mexican media are, in a perverse fashion, dependent on government advertising,” says Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who notes that this “ultimately amounts to a system of subsidies of hundreds of millions of dollars a year”.
“So many of these layoffs are absolutely linked to that [unsustainable model], but the situation has obviously been accelerated with Lopez Obrador’s budget cuts,” says Hootsen.
The situation has piled more pressure on Mexican journalists. Last year, according to the International Federation of Journalists, more journalists were killed in Mexico than in Iraq, Syria and Yemen combined – even though Mexico is not a country at war.
The political climate is also turning against reporters.
Lopez Obrador (often called “AMLO” for his initials) addresses journalists and answers their questions for nearly two hours every weekday morning.
“It’s something unique in the world,” says CPJ’s Hootsen. “His predecessors hardly ever gave press conferences [and] they rarely took questions from the press.”
But some see the daily pressers are more of an agenda-setting apparatus than an accountability exercise. Fact-checkers from nongovernmental organisations report that less than 50 percent of what the president has said in his speeches during the last six months was true.
During his pressers, Lopez Obrador often dismisses critical reporters and their outlets as “fifis”, which is slang for “posh”. He also accuses them of supporting the “power mafia” – a term he coined to refer to previous administrations’ corrupt government officials and business executives.
In April, Juan Pardinas, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Reforma, was harassed and threatened online after Lopez Obrador criticised the newspaper’s reporting during a daily press briefing.
Lopez Obrador acknowledged the threats against Pardinas. And a spokesperson for the president’s office told CPJ that the government was committed to ensuring Pardinas’s safety.
But the president has deflected criticism over such social media attacks onto his supporters.
“If you step out of line, you know what will happen,” AMLO told reporters in April shortly after journalist Jorge Ramos contradicted him about statistics on rising murder rates in Mexico. “But it won’t be me: It’s the people.”
A February study from Signa Lab at ITESO University reported there is unusual behaviour on Twitter after Lopez Obrador targets the media for criticisms – including “choir” bot accounts that retweet messages discrediting journalists, and outlets and dedicated “trolls” that harass the press.
“We noticed these accounts emerged around 8am during the president’s daily press briefings, and set the tendencies for what will be discussed throughout the day,” Rossana Reguillo, lead researcher at Signa Lab, told Al Jazeera.
“Our conclusion is that all these operations have successfully created a tendency for self-censorship,” she added.
Questioned by reporters about this study’s claims, Lopez Obrador said in March, “We’ll never be disrespectful towards the media, even less persecute anyone or restrict freedom of expression.”
“It’s good this study came out,” he continued. “But it is not true there’s a group promoted by us to defend ourselves against those who question or criticise us. There’s no such thing. We do not have bots.”
A handful of digital news outlets in Mexico such as Animal Politico and aristeguinoticias.com have tried to break dependence on government advertising. But they struggle to survive.
“Since there’s no real political opposition, I think it will be the business sector that will end up paying for critical journalism,” Mael Vallejo, senior editor at The Washington Post, told Al Jazeera.
Last year, before joining The Post, Vallejo led digital news startup Mexico.com, which achieved quick popularity with its team of prominent journalists creating original content tailored to younger audiences.
Vallejo says the idea behind the project was to provide high-quality journalism through a new business model. But only six months into the project, the startup’s owners stopped paying employees and sought government advertising. Mexico.com has lost more than half of its newsroom staff, and hasn’t updated its website since early July.
“Everyone is just waiting for the 4T [the ‘fourth transformation’, as Lopez Obrador calls his government’s vision] to turn on the tap,” says Vallejo, who believes Mexico’s media will not change its funding model. He believes newsrooms are just holding their breath until the president eventually releases the advertising funds.
In the meantime, Amezcua says she hasn’t been able to find a job after she was laid off in February. The same is true for many of her colleagues. “It had never been so difficult finding a job,” she says. “And I do consider we are victims of the 4T and of a president who holds a grudge against the media.”