Mexico Cuts Press Payoffs New Guidelines Ban Decades-Old Practice of Government Bribes

Article excerpt

IN an effort to polish the sullied image of Mexico's news media, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has ordered an end to government handouts to journalists.

Banning the chayote, a decades-old practice of paying a monthly bribe to reporters, columnists, and cartoonists, is the principal change in a set of new standards of conduct established by law for government agencies earlier this month.

"These are not isolated moves," says Gabriel Guerra, a presidential spokesman. "They are part of a pattern to modernize the relationship between the government and the media that began early in this administration with the end of the newsprint monopoly and the sale of government-owned media."

In September, President Salinas ordered a halt to the practice of paying the expenses of journalists who travel with him on official overseas trips. The latest guidelines include tighter accounting procedures for government press offices. For example, all checks must be made out to a specific name and these offices must now submit a monthly report of expenses. But the new rules do not stop the payment of advertising commissions (10 to 15 percent) to the reporters who cover government agencies that place regular ads.

The measures are being greeted with a mixture of hope and skepticism.

"It's an advance. A small one, but an advance," says Raymundo Riva Palacio, an editor for the business daily El Financiero.

"They're moving in the right direction," says Sergio Aguayo, president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights. "Basic to a democracy is an independent press, which can't happen without economic independence." But, he adds: "There's still a lot to do. It's a hugely corrupt system."

Mr. Riva concurs: "They're attacking the weakest link in the chain of corruption. If you want to get at the heart of the problem, you have to go after the subsidies paid to the media."

Government officials and political parties commonly pay for publicity and photos to appear in newspapers. The insertions appear to be regular news items, not paid advertisements. A front-page article can cost up to $30,000. During a political campaign last year, the relatively independent daily La Jornada confessed to accepting $10,000 to run two photos: one showing a candidate speaking to a large crowd, another of a candidate speaking to an almost empty street.

Business firms also pay the press: A Mexican businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, says he often pays "several thousand dollars" to have Televisa, a private television network with a 24-hour news channel, cover his conferences. …