WHAT does freedom of the press mean in Mexico? Neither the
government nor the media moguls in Mexico want to talk about it.
Neither understands or admits to understanding the necessity of a
free press to the functioning of a democracy. As Mexico approaches
full partnership in free trade with the United States and Canada,
there is no real guarantee of the public's right to hear all sides
of political issues, so that informed choices can be made at the
polls. Canada and the US may have fully discussed the ramifications
of border and tariff changes, but the Mexican public has not.
In retrospect, freedom of political expression has never existed
in modern Mexico. For decades, there have been practically no
openly discussed political issues. The Institutional Revolutionary
Party (PRI), which has been in power since 1929, is more than just
the "ruling" political party. It has been virtually synonymous with
the government itself. Without real political competition, how and
why would freedom of the press become an issue at all?
Times are changing, but slowly. The financial crisis of the
1980s saw the rise of real political competition in some Mexican
states, which culminated in the hotly contested 1988 federal
election. It is creditably alleged that only election fraud kept
the opposition left-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD)
from winning the presidency.
Moreover, the challenging parties had virtually no access to
television, which is controlled by the PRI. During its decades in
power the PRI has secured almost complete control over the rest of
the media as well. This is done mainly through payments. Sometimes
the process is sophisticated, but more often the payments are
blatant gifts or cash given to underpaid reporters and editors,
with the complete acquiescence of their employers. There has been a
slight improvement: As of last month, by presidential order,
government payments to the media are to be accounted for. But there
has been no effort to restrain them.
THE newspapers themselves are sponsored not only by advertising,
but also by government-paid articles. There are more than 20 daily
newspapers in Mexico City. What looks like a vigorous press is
actually heavily dependent on government money. It is doubtful that
more than a handful would survive under a freely competitive system
without government contributions. Thus indebted to the government
for their existence, many papers are readily disposed to print the
party line. The reason the government keeps all these newspapers
going is so that no paper will become dominant.
Until last year, the government held the monopoly on the
newsprint supply. Paper supplies could be cut off to a
nonconforming publication. The paper supply has been privatized,
but now if a newspaper becomes too critical, they are subject to
repeated financial audits. …