Magazine: NIEMAN REPORTS Issue: SUMMER 1994 Title: Update on the Mexican Press Author: Raymundo Riva Palacio Update on the Mexican Press By Raymundo Riva Palacio (Raymundo Riva Palacio is Assistant Managing Editor at Reforma an independent newspaper in Mexico City.) For scores of Mexican newspapers, life was coming to a natural end in 1993. With the country in a recession, commercial advertising was reduced. More importantly, government advertising, which is the main source of revenue for the majority of the newspapers, also fell. At the same time circulation dropped and every newspaper in Mexico City had to cut its staff. Even El Financiero, the country's leading financial daily and its healthiest newspaper economically, was forced to halt new projects, implement draconian economic measures, and sell 10 percent of the family-owned shares. (The publisher's family still owns 80 percent of the shares.) Other newspapers were less lucky. La Prensa, a popular tabloid, second in circulation only to the sports daily Esto, was transformed from a cooperative into a private company in order to be sold. In response to the new realities of a free-market economy, a number of newspapers began to explore ways to increase their capital and their market share. Two of them, El Financiero and El Universal--the latter enjoys the largest circulation for a broadsheet in Mexico City--studied the possibility of selling their stock publicly. El Financiero also signed a weak alliance with an important financial group from Monterrey, while El Universal exchanged board members with Multivision, a Mexico City-based wireless TV network. El Norte, a well respected Monterrey-based newspaper, began publishing a daily in Mexico City: Reforma. The original idea was to sign a joint venture with Dow Jones & Co., but in the end they agreed only on Reforma's carrying Wall Street Journal material. A handful of Mexican newspapers were getting ready for the challenge. But the early hours of 1994 changed the mood of the country, when guerrilla troops marched into five towns in Chiapas, a southern state along the Guatemalan border, in the first armed peasant movement since the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The rebellion galvanized Mexican society and the press. What have we done? What went wrong? Mexico was supposed to have become a First World country after the Free Trade Agreement. What happened? The guerrilla war failed to achieve its goal of a national uprising, but it did shock Mexicans into reflecting deeply on who they were, what they had done, what they wanted to be. The war in Chiapas, which devolved into a tense stalemate, was just the beginning of a very traumatic first quarter of the year. It was followed by the murder of the governing party's official candidate for the Presidency, Luis Donaldo Colosio, which sent waves of sadness, fear, shame and uncertainty over the country. It was the first assassination of that kind since 1929 and the national impact was the equivalent of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the U.S. Suddenly, all Mexican parameters and points of reference were moved. Mexico was supposed to be a country where such killings did not happen; Mexico was supposed to be a country where political rivalries were settled through political means; Mexico claimed to be the most peaceful country in the Americas. But its paradigms no longer existed.In three months, Mexicans lost their 55-year-old political innocence and were trying to survive in a whole new national environment. All members of society were confused. The press, too, sank into this morass, without knowing how to respond. In the Chiapas war, as in Colosio's killing, the Mexican press showed all its shortcomings. Unlike the general impression that exists in Mexico and abroad, those major events did not change the media's rapport with the government. The wide coverage of those news stories did not help to make a better or a more independent press in Mexico. Indeed, that was a point that was not even raised or debated. The chain of corruption between scores of newspapers and the government remains stable. Hidden subsidies, such as soft loans for paper and newsprint purchases, kickbacks and perks, are maintained at a sound pace. The idea of a more independent press was only a cosmetic impression. There was more information because of the unusual events. Indeed, there was harsh criticism, but it came from those outlets that have been harsh critics all along, such as the weekly magazine Proceso, El Financiero, and the newly born Reforma, which hired several of El Financiero's important contributors. Newspapers subsidized by the government maintained their loyalty. They published not only stories fed directly to them by government sources, but also disinformation (as in Colosio's killing) and propaganda, mainly to discredit the Church (in the Chiapas case). Both events proved how far the press runs behind the society it pretends to serve. In the war in Chiapas, the few independent newspapers violated their standard of balanced coverage. They went too far in their support of the guerrilla army, thus creating the impression that they were justifying the violence. Their columns were filled with human-interest stories and, in several cases, with unverified information that was presented to the readers as fact. The coverage was so huge (La Jornada, for instance, devoted 36 to 48 pages almost every day during the first month), that independent newspapers lacked coherence. Too many stories were printed, and too many were simply repetitive. The result was a fragmented product, strong for immediate purposes, but weak and useless for those who wanted to get the overall picture of the war. Chiapas was too big an event for reporters and editors to handle. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the few independent newspapers did have an important impact: their systematic criticism regarding the military solution the Mexican Government pursued helped shape public opposition. Strangely for a society that hardly reads papers, the independents were the main sources of information for Mexicans, who openly distrust the television networks and are dissatisfied with radio coverage. Television coverage went from a professional product the first day of the uprising to a shameless job afterwards, for the most part disseminating only government press releases and failing to show the other side. Since Mexico no longer has public television, the unbalanced coverage was even more notorious. The very first day of the uprising Televisa, the strongest network, covered all aspects of the conflict, reporting what the Zapatistas had to say. That was the first day of January, when top executives were on holiday. Two days later, everything changed. Televisa moved shoulder to shoulder with the Mexican Army, which allowed the network to travel in military helicopters and armored vehicles. The close relationship led to a permanent prohibition against Televisa's visiting guerrilla-controlled territories. The two other networks, Television Azteca and Multivision, were not far behind. Government press releases dominated their broadcasts and on more than one occasion Multivision's leading anchor refuted his interviewees' arguments on the air because they referred to the Zapatistas as a "rebel army." Electronic media in Mexico relies very much on the government's wishes and orders because they operate through concessions given by the authorities. Theoretically, the government is able to withdraw broadcast permits. The government did not have to threaten the networks because in many instances they were leaning toward government propaganda, a pattern not unusual in Mexican television. Radio stations were a different story. Radio stations began broadcasting all sorts of information during the Chiapas war, until the subtle mechanism of censorship was put in place by the Orwellian office in charge of monitoring all broadcasts in the country: Radio, Television and Cinematography, an office from the Secretaria de Gobernacion, which is the Latin American equivalent of the Ministry of the Interior. RTC sent faxes to a good number of radio stations "suggesting" that they should not refer to the Zapatistas as anything but "law violators." The major radio stations complied. With the electronic media's loss of credibility, the print media gained terrain. Mexicans turned enthusiastically to news outlets with independent information. But after the initial awareness, the papers began to lose new readers. La Jornada fell to 80,000 a day; Proceso to 170,000. Why? The papers were unable to provide stories beyond the spot events. They did not produce original, interesting, ground- breaking stories about what lay behind the uprising and the governmental response. The same phenomenon was repeated with the Colosio murder. Independent newspapers such as El Financiero and Reforma sold out in Mexico City newsstands before 8 o'clock in the morning. Subscriptions rose substantially. Also, the same journalistic phenomenon was repeated. The lack of investigative reporting techniques made reporters hostages to rumors, half-truths and many lies. The media, independent or loyal to the government, were unable to stand back from the traumatic impact of the killing and were dragged along with society into the darkness of the confusion. One month after the killing, the press insisted that the assassination should have been solved; otherwise there was an ongoing cover-up. As a result, over 70 percent of Mexicans believe that the order to kill Colosio was given by President Carlos Salinas, the PRI and/or the Mexican political system. Thus, the press oiled the speculation, promoted national fears and helped increase the uncertainty. It has not helped society understand what is going on, mainly because the press itself has not been able to understand society. In any case, far from being a useful beacon of truth for Mexicans, it is providing the smoke that hides the light. It is too early to see how big the impact those two major events will have on the Mexican press. However, it is possible to foresee that, for some newspapers in Mexico City, this was their last chance to survive. Those who leaned toward the government in the first quarter of 1994 lost as much credibility as the government did, and they shared the fall. For them, casualties of modern Mexico, the injury might prove fatal. For different reasons, the independent newspapers are not safe either. Their coverage will be reviewed. Their bias will be confirmed, their journalistic limitations will surface, their technical inabilities will be shown. Despite their economic and credibility problems, the independent papers may be the principal ones to survive the strongest test Mexico has had to face since 1910. Being independent will be a powerful starting point in a new Mexico that demands new rules, under totally different circumstances.