Documents on Mexican Politics.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.