Mexican media’s balancing act

Experts say the Mexican press walk a fine line between censoring their reporting and balancing their revenues.

Mexico press freedom
Aristegui’s dismissal is raising concerns about freedom of speech in Mexico [Al Jazeera]

“Out Calderon out!” shouts the woman, part of the crowd jostling around a cultural centre in Mexico City.

As she joins the chants of the protesters against Mexico’s president, she waves a photograph of a smiling woman above her head.

The woman in the photograph is Carmen Aristegui, one of Mexico’s most easily recognisable journalists. Famed for her investigative reporting and all-star interview shows, Aristegui held a prime time slot with radio station MVS, where multitudes of Mexicans listened to her on their way to work.

All this changed on Friday 4th February when Aristegui addressed an issue long-discussed on the Mexico City social media rumour mill: President Felipe Calderon’s supposed problem with alcohol.

Private speculation had raised its head publicly when lawmakers unfurled a banner in Congress bearing the legend: “Would you let a drunk drive your car? No, right? So why would you let one drive your country?”

In her radio show, Aristegui insisted that the presidency should reply to the implied accusation. “Does the president or does he not have an alcohol problem?” she asked. “The presidency should give a clear and formal answer with respect to this.”

By the Monday after, Aristegui was clearing her desk, fired by MVS who said that she had broken their code of conduct by “broadcasting rumour as news”.

Aristegui herself claimed that the Mexican government pressured the radio station for her head. As her supporters gathered outside the cultural centre shouting slogans against the Mexican president, she gave a defiant performance within.

“An act like this is only imaginable in a dictatorship that nobody wants for Mexico: punishing for opining or questioning rulers,” she said.

The Mexican presidency has denied that it had anything to do with the sacking of Aristegui, but the resulting maelstrom has caused many to question the close relationship between government and the media in Mexico.

Even the surprise reinstatement of the journalist by MVS on 15th February after the radio station had held talks with Aristegui and registered the comments of the public, seemed to late to quell the debate on exactly how free the press is in Mexico.

Subtle censorship

Top Mexican political analyst Sergio Aguayo says that government censorship of media is still widely practised in Mexico, but strong arm methods have been abandoned for a more subtle approach.

Something as fundamental as the right to broadcast for a TV or radio station can be a bargaining chip used by the state.

“According to the law, the government has the power of awarding licences to radio or TV stations and that has been part of the strings of power that presidents use, to give favours to those who work with them or to show their anger against journalists or politicians that are overly critical,” Aguayo told Al Jazeera.

Aristegui herself alleged that the fact that MVS radio’s licence was up for renewal was a key factor in her dismissal.

As well as power over licences, advertising revenue from the federal government makes up a large part of the income of many major Mexican media outlets, according to Ricardo Gonzalez of Article 19, a London-based freedom of expression group. In some cases media outlets rely so heavily on these advertising contracts that they risk bankruptcy if the government decides to withdraw them.

In 2009, the federal government spent over $160m in their public relations strategy, including adverts taken out in media. This amount doubled from 2005, according to government figures.

Following floods in the south of the country in 2007, Calderon alone appeared in 449 advertising “pots” on different television and radio broadcasters in just one week, according to figures from Article 19.

Gonzalez says members of the media worry about losing their slice of the lucrative government advertising pie to such an extent that, rather than await the call telling them they have strayed into territory that is deemed to be out of bounds, they effectively censor themselves to avoid incurring the government’s wrath.

This leads many media to have an unspoken blacklist of subjects that they will not speak about for fear of offending the powers that be, says Gonzalez. For journalists, breaking the editorial line could mean losing your job, he adds.

Many media outlets seem more concerned about their government-based incomes than their staff, Gonzalez opined.

The row over Aristegui’s comments eventually culminated in President Calderon’s private secretary stepping out to deny the presidency’s involvement in Aristegui’s sacking and defend the president’s state of health. Without directly addressing the original accusation of alcoholism, Roberto Gil said that Calderon’s high rate of public appearances was proof of his well being.

“During the four years of his administration, he has never missed any event because of health problems,” Gil said. “This work pace is the best proof of his good health, physical strength and integrity.”

Whether freedom of expression in Mexican media enjoys such good health is still up for debate.

Source: Al Jazeera