ON THE VERY day the National Association of Hispanic Journalists began assembling in the border cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo did something at his Mexico City residence that was unprecedented in the modern history of the Republic: He held a real press conference for Mexican journalists.
The occasion was El Dia de la Libertad de Expresion (Freedom of Expression Day), but despite the first-ever noholds-barred press conference, Zedillo's promise to hold similar sessions in the future and his distribution of national journalism awards, the day remained a mordant reminder of the true state of the press in Mexico.
Throughout the nation, journalists echoed this assessment on the editorial page of Diario de Juarez back at the border: "To put it simply, you cannot celebrate what does not exist."
Mexico's press finds itself at a critical moment in its history. For the same dramatic developments that are rending the country's political and social fabric -- the assassinations of two top political figures that may have been the work of government officials, the cracking of the ruling party's government monopoly and the devaluation of the peso -- are also loosening the tethers that traditionally restrained the Mexican press.
But how ready for this uncertain future are Mexico's newspapers and broadcast outlets? Not very, it was clear from several panel discussions -- and an unprecedented bi-national electronic town hall meeting -- held in El Paso and Juarez at the recent 13th annual National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention.
"The Mexican press is an institution ... that is very, very corrupted. We have very few examples of real, free Mexican press -- but things are getting better," said Alberto Garza, editor-inchief of El Norte in Monterrey and Reforma in Mexico City.
Both papers are often cited as examples of how Mexico's press is changing for the better. In its 18 months of existence, Reforma, in particular, has broken all the rules of newspapering in Mexico City: It is not edited to push any particular view, it is not sold in the kiosks operated by a government-controlled union, and, most important, its reporters are well-paid so they do not depend on official bribes to make a living.
"Journalism has not been a good, satisfying or rewarding position in Mexico," Garza said. "Journalists receive a minimum wage, a press card, and they are able, in the good cases, to sell advertising and augment their salaries, or, in the worst cases, to get bribes for their coverage.
"This is the Achille's heel of the Mexican press -- ethics," Garza added.
When El Norte publisher Alejandro Junco de la Vega decided to expand to Mexico City, he devised an eight-month recruitment period aimed at assembling an honest and professional newsroom, Garza said.
Some 3,500 people, virtually all of them young and inexperienced, were asked to apply.
"We did not want to take the chance of getting people with bad habits from the other press," Garza said.
Those hired were given a six-week journalism course, a month's apprenticeship at the Monterrey paper -- and a living salary.
Soon after the paper's inauguration, it had to recruit a circulation force as well.
Most newspaper sales in Mexico City are made from a network of 20,000 kiosks whose workers benefit from the largess of their government-controlled union. These distributors are not exactly politically neutral.
"When they saw Reforma was a big success, they decided to stop Reforma," Garza said.
The kiosk vendors had a long list of complaints: They did not want Reforma publishing on holidays, they did not like the tone of the reporting -- they even objected to the paper's U.S.-style of splashy color and graphics.
When the union announced it would no longer handle Reforma, Garza said, "Most people in Mexico predicted that would be the end of Reforma."
In a showy demonstration of independence, 600 Reforma journalists and other employees sold the paper on the streets the first day of the boycott.
They were quickly replaced by a force of hawkers and stores -- who found the true level of support for Reforma.
"Before, there were 20,000 [kiosk] sites and they were selling [fewer] than 20,000. Now our 1,400 independent vendors sell 60,000 copies per day," Garza said.
And just as other newspapers adopted Reforma's modern graphics and color, so they, too, now use street hawkers.
Reforma is not alone in transforming Mexican newspapering, says Murray Fromson, director of the graduate program at the University of Southern California's journalism school.
Among the other emerging papers, according to Fromson: El Imparcial in Hermosillo and Siglo Veinte y Uno in Guadalajara.
Changes are starting to grab hold of local papers, too, some Mexican journalists said at the NAHJ conference.
"You have a Mexican press that is currently in transition in Juarez, for example, where a young and well-educated [group of journalists] is replacing a group of not very educated and ethically challenged, older press," said Julian Resendiz, a reporter who covers the border for the El Paso Herald-Post. "Ten years ago, people would not have given much hope for the development of a free press in Mexico," USC's Fromson said.
Nevertheless, enormous problems remain.
The biggest problem is a government that at the same time dominates society -- yet remains opaque.
"The political culture was a real surprise to me," Wall Street Journal Mexico City correspondent Diane Solis said. "I didn't think I would be covering the Kremlin. But that's what I am, a Kremlin tea leaf reader."
For instance, basic economic statistics that are available to anyone in the United States are treated in Mexico as state secrets, Solis said.
"You never take your access for granted -- even if you work for the Wall Street Journal," Solis said. "Basic things like a press conference [typically are! the reading of a press bulletin. And you don't get to ask questions."
And Mexican presidents -- who rule Mexico's democracy with a very authoritarian power during their sexenio, their single six-year term
"People talk about how modern [former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari] was," Solis said. "Well, in the Salinas sexenio, he held only one press conference. It was only for foreign correspondents and the night before [government officials] called the seven correspondents in advance to ask them what they were going to ask.
"So of course everybody changed their question once they got there."
Information from the government is so scarce, in fact, that Reforma's Garza says flatly that the Mexican press is simply not "fact-based."
"Mexico's press is not devoted to facts, but to opinions," he said. "It's what the president said and everybody's opinion about what the president said. We have a problem with sources because they don't want to speak [of facts]. They just want to give their opinions -- and most of these are empty opinions."
At the same time it limits access to the press, the government is able to manipulate the press directly and indirectly. Many papers, for example, depend on government advertising for their very existence. And many, too, are not above planting an article for a fee -- with a premium for a byline or accompanying photo.
And while the newsprint cooperative, PIPSE, is no longer used by the government to choke off supplies to unfavored newspapers, Reforma's Garza notes suspiciously that the supplier delayed price increases until quite recently -- in effect giving a subsidy to the pro-government papers that get their paper from PIPSE. Reforma and other independent papers buy newsprint abroad.
But Garza also thinks the newsprint price crisis will have the salutary effect of reducing the number of newspapers in Mexico City.
Mexico City has 25 to 30 daily newspapers, most with tiny circulations. In a city of 20 million people, their combined circulation is about the same as the San Diego Union-Tribune, which serves a city of 1.1 million, the Freedom Forum calculated recently.
All these voices tend to cancel each other out -- and blunt the potential of creating a climate of public opinion to demand changes in the government, Garza says.
"The most widely read newspaper [in Mexico] is not in Mexico City -- it's in Monterrey," Garza said of El Norte, which publishes in a city of three million.