Self-Censorship and the Mexican Press by Jeffrey Stoub Former editor and reporter for the Mexico City News -How do you see the situation, Pons? -Ugly, but easy to take care of, for the moment. -Well, now we push it in the paper. Hit'em hard. Don't hold anything back. -Whatever you say, Don Artemio. -It's better if we get the public ready. -We've been plugging at it for so many years. -I want to see page one and all the editorials. --Carlos Fuentes-The Death of Artemio Cruz Contemporary Mexican folklore has it that the media are less vehicles for information than tools used by those with power-- both by government officials as well as by the businessmen who hover in their immediate proximity. Whereas in many parts of the world, and especially in the United States, the media are feared for being manipulative, in Mexico the media are simply manipulated. Carlos Fuentes writes of the life of one of these power brokers, a life that stretches from before the 1910 revolution into the late 1940s and early 1950s, the days of Miguel Alem n Valds, when many feel today's organized manipulation of the media began. Artemio Cruz is a newspaper publisher. But as Fuentes' novel winds its way through the history of Don Artemio's quest for money and power to his deathbed, the few times he mentions his newspaper, he is attempting to promote another business interest, sway political adversaries, or impress a woman he has met. It seems that in reality, little has changed since Fuentes' novelistic view of the press. Instead of a Don Artemio Cruz, now there are newspaper owners such as Don R"mulo O'Farrill, Jr., owner and publisher of two Mexico City daily newspapers, Novedades and The News. O'Farrill also publishes Mexico's Spanish-language versions of Vogue and Playboy, as well as hundreds of different 10-cent comic books, which the government says are valuable education devices while critics say they are an important reason why about 40 percent of Mexicans never learn to read. Novedades is one of about 10 major daily Spanish-language newspapers with varying degrees of credibility, as well as amounts of advertising money provided by the government to keep the paper afloat. As with most Mexico City dailies, its readership is extremely low. It has an estimated 10,000 readers even though it claims to have more than 200,000. Only one of the dailies, La Prensa, is thought to have an actual circulation of more than 100,000. The News is superficially different from the rest of the dailies published in Mexico City. It is printed entirely in English and its staff is composed of mainly non-Mexicans. Its editors, many of whom have training and experience with U.S. publications, talk about the newspaper being an "American style" publication. Begun in the mid-1950s, The News has long been touted as "Mexico's only English language newspaper" and, since it is published mainly for tourists, carries the impression that since its readers are different, its content is also different. But because of these apparent differences, and the expectations they raise, The News serves as a good vehicle for discussing how pervasive the control of the media--which includes self-censorship as much as government pressure--is in Mexico. As a matter of full disclosure, I want to make clear my connection to The News. From October 1991 through December 1992, I worked first as a section editor and later as a reporter covering issues ranging from elections to ecology and from human rights to foreign relations. On December 24, I resigned after one reporter was fired and the rest of us were banned from writing anything that could be construed as politically sensitive. I continue living in Mexico and am working as a free-lance correspondent for several U.S.-based magazines and newsletters. During my time at the newspaper, which spanned two separate editorial staffs, I saw the newspaper pass through the majority of a cycle, starting with a hands-off policy and ending with censorship, which it has, I am told, passed through repeatedly since its first days. That cycle can be described very simply. The publishers of The News hire an editor, often someone who is seeking the adventure of living in another country, and tell that person they will have complete control over editorial policy at the newspaper. Months, maybe years, later, after the new editor has formed a staff and possibly made improvements in the look and content of the newspaper, the publishers begin to get nervous. Rumors begin to spread about "problems" between the editor and the publishers and the news editors receive increasing numbers of orders from the publishers explaining what stories can and cannot be run, a signal that control is being usurped from the editor. The editor is then forced out, usually leaving after growing tired of the political scheming behind his back. The last of these cycles ended in 1988 when students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) began a series of protests over a proposed tuition increase, which would have increased tuition from a cost of virtually nothing to maybe $40 per year. Thousands of students demonstrated first on campus and later in downtown Mexico City streets, saying that the Mexican Constitution guaranteed free education and that the government could not violate that guarantee. Most newspapers, including The News, covered the protests, often with banner headlines on the front page. At some point during the coverage of this event (the details of which may have been changed slightly in the retelling from one News generation to the next), O'Farrill told the newspaper's editor at the time, Pete Hamill, to "tone down coverage" of the protests. Hamill responded that that would be censorship and demanded to know if O'Farrill was ordering him to cut the stories. When O'Farrill said yes, Hamill immediately resigned. While most News people who hear the story side with Hamill, O'Farrill (and his cohorts) repeatedly say he was simply attempting to end what he called sensational journalism. At the time, though, some 15 News staff members resigned in solidarity with Hamill. What never comes out in the stories of the incident, however, are the real reasons why O'Farrill wanted the coverage of the student protests squelched. Conspiracy theorists associated with The News firmly believe that O'Farrill must have been ordered by someone in the government (which for all practical purposes controls UNAM) to call off coverage of the student protests. It is more likely, however, that O'Farrill was acting to defend his self- interests, that is, he committed an act of self-censorship in order to avoid political or financial problems in the future. After the 1988 incident, several editors came and went at The News (mainly Mexicans) until Mike Zamba took over in late 1990. He, like the other editors, was encouraged to create his version of an American-style newspaper. (Zamba had worked for the Christian Science Monitor and a smaller Gannett newspaper and had strong ideas of what a paper should look and read like.) Zamba then began hiring reporters and editors (myself included) to fill in the holes that were left in the staff. Although the publishers were reluctant to give the new staff proper telephones, computers, or office space, they did allow Zamba a fair amount of freedom, especially in extending the scope of the newspaper's coverage from virtually only news wire stories to stories with a local focus written by staff members. A year-and-a-half later, the tide reversed and the publishers made it known they were not satisfied with the result of Zamba's changes. At one point, they told him they would not stand to watch him create a team of reporters that would operate beyond the reach of their authority. They obviously feared Zamba would become another Pete Hamill. A conflict between Zamba and O'Farrill soon arose over the types of business stories that were going into the newspaper, both locally-written as well as those off the wire. O'Farrill decided that stories could not contain company names either in headlines or prominent spots in the text. This rendered the business section of the newspaper virtually useless. Apparently, O'Farrill felt that any direct mention of a company represented a form of advertising for that company. He was not about to see companies get free advertising in the newspaper. Imagine if the Wall Street Journal were to adopt such a policy. The entire staff complained that this was a form of censorship and Zamba promised to sort out the problem. But after several meetings with the publishers, all Zamba could do was tell the staff to keep company names out of headlines until the whole thing blew over. Several weeks passed before the situation exploded anew. The newspaper's "Section B" (the arts and entertainment section) ran a cover story about the anniversary of Yves Saint Laurent perfume, mainly because there were a number of wire stories featuring the company. The same day, the publishers began an investigation into the section editor, saying she must pay the price for three full-page advertisements (the amount of space the article took up). The investigation was an effort to learn whether or not she had accepted money to print the article. While this seems a strange leap, the practice of accepting money for articles is standard in The News' sister paper, Novedades, as well as in other daily newspapers. In fact, reporters will often approach companies with the suggestion of writing a profile if the compensation will be high enough. The News, at least under Zamba, maintained a strict policy of not participating in this practice and would not allow any reporters to accept money for any article. Meanwhile, another publisher-influenced change was creeping into the newspaper's editorial policies. All newspapers in Mexico City accept what are known as gacetillas, pre-written advertisements that are paid to appear as news stories. Some newspapers, like the daily La Jornada, print the gacetillas with different headlines (in this case, the headline appears in italics) to distinguish authentic news from paid news. Many of these gacetillas are paid for by government offices or large companies and newspapers find they cannot survive without this form of revenue. Most companies don't bother to advertise in newspapers because they have so few readers. Moreover, the government has found gacetillas to be an effective form of maintaining control over newspapers: if they don't like a newspaper's editorial policy, they can simply threaten to stop sending gacetillas. The News had attempted to keep all gacetillas from running in the news hole, that is, to draw a firm line between news and advertising. This was usually done by putting the word "advertisement" or "special advertising feature" above the gacetilla and then drawing a box around the entire advertisement. But when advertisers decided this practice didn't lend enough legitimacy to their advertisements, the publishers demanded that certain gacetillas run within the news section bearing a byline reading "The News Staff." In one instance, a gacetilla ran on the front page. Zamba resigned from the newspaper soon after these incidents, saying that he could not work for a company that wanted an American-style newspaper but refused to practice American-style journalistic ethics. This time, however, no one from the staff walked off the job as a show of support. The News was left with a Peruvian "executive coordinator" named Fernando Bambarn who was to take over editorial operations in lieu of an editor. He was supposedly trained in newspaper management but had worked mainly in hotel management before being hired to reorganize The News. Once again, the process of building up the newspaper began. About 10 new reporters and editors were hired (the turnover rate is extremely high, with many people staying for only six months), new telephones installed, and the entire office was remodeled. Bambarn also promised that the publishers had no policies of censorship and would not interfere in the operations of The News. Skeptical staff members pointed out ongoing incidents of important stories, such as the shooting deaths of several opposition party militants in Michoac n, being moved off the front page, even though other newspapers ran the stories prominently. Bambarn replied that he was trying to run a "family newspaper," and that certain stories belonged off the front page, apparently to shield children from bad news. (A recent survey, however, had determined that the vast majority of The News' readers were over 50, retired, and had no children living with them in Mexico.) A gradual buildup of these seemingly minor incidents of censorship happened over the next few months, so gradually that no one incident seemed worth resigning over. Instead, staff members wrote letters to the publishers and attempted to force some changes with Bambarn. In the meantime, most reporters were traveling to various parts of Mexico and the United States to cover stories that were at least being printed in the newspaper. Trouble began after two state elections on July 12, which I and another staff reporter covered. While the Chihuahua election was won by an opposition candidate and there was little opposition to the outcome, in Michoac n, Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) members cried vote fraud when an Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate won. During the following weeks, protests escalated and opposition supporters took over the governor's offices as well as the entire center of the state capital. Continuing protests eventually led to the new governor's resignation. During those three or four months, I wrote numerous stories about the political ramifications of the protests as well as news stories about deaths and fighting that resulted from the conflict. None of my stories were cut but the publishers had informed Bambarn that they thought the coverage was biased in favor of the PRD. At one point, O'Farrill allegedly called The News a "PRD rag" and wanted fewer political and human rights stories. November came with another round of state elections involving fierce opposition from the PRD as well as from the National Action Party (PAN). This time, The News focused on the Puebla election for governor (I was to cover a slightly less controversial election in Tamaulipas). In Puebla, the PRI's candidate, Manuel Bartlett D!az, was guaranteed victory, mainly because he was a former Secretary of Government (the most powerful position after the president) and had full backing from his party. One reporter, however, had obtained a confidential document from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that listed names of people being investigated for connections to drug trafficking operations in Mexico. Bartlett Diaz's name was on the list. The document proved nothing but that the U.S. government was looking at Bartlett D!az as one person who might have been involved in the kidnap and murder of Enrique Camarena, the DEA agent who was tortured in 1985, apparently by Mexican drug lords. The Mexican government had known about the document for several years, and Proceso, a news weekly that does not accept paid political advertising, had printed an article two years prior about the document. Nevertheless, Zachary Margulis decided that with Bartlett D!az's running for governor, it was an opportunity to dig a little deeper into Bartlett D!az's drug running connections. He managed to talk with several people in Puebla who were more than willing to discuss rumors of Bartlett D!az's alleged notoriety. PRI officials, on the other hand, were reluctant to discuss the matter. Margulis' article was to appear several days before election day but virtually all references to drug trafficking were excised from the story, leaving only a brief election day preview. Margulis, who was staying in a hotel in Puebla, saw the chopped-up article (the newspaper is sold in major cities across the country) and complained to Bambarn. He was told that the newspaper's political coverage had been deemed one-sided (against the PRI) and that he would not be writing any more articles about the elections. While in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, I heard about the censorship and that Margulis had gone back to Mexico City since he had no work left to do there. While my article continued to run in the newspaper, I was told to avoid writing about opposition protests, especially regarding vote fraud. I managed to write a few more articles about the conflicts before returning to Mexico City, although I was not allowed to travel to Matamoros where fighting had erupted between parties and a dozen opposition members had been arrested. Bambarn told me there was no money for extra travel. Upset about the censorship, I talked with Mariana Pr!a, head of the PRI's international press office who happened to be in Tamaulipas answering questions for the foreign correspondents covering those elections. I told her of the situation and she seemed concerned about what happened, agreeing that such censorship is unacceptable. The next day, apparently after talking to other party officials, Pr!a told me that Bartlett D!az had in fact called her office asking what to do about the articles The News had published hinting he might be involved in drug trafficking, knowing that Margulis intended to write about the DEA document. Pr!a said Bartlett D!az wanted to call O'Farrill to prevent the article from appearing, but that she told him not to get involved as that might cause more problems. Pr!a, however, would not confirm whether or not Bartlett D!az had ignored her recommendation and would only say that party officials had nothing to do with The News' decision not to publish the article. She also noted the well-known friendship between Bartlett D!az and O'Farrill as well as the fact that O'Farrill operates numerous businesses in Puebla. On November 23, Newsweek ran an article about the censorship at The News in its international edition, noting specifically the connections between O'Farrill and Bartlett D!az, as well as the possibility that Bartlett D!az was involved, or at least condoned, drug trafficking operations during his time as Secretary of Government. The article specifically mentioned Zachary Margulis as the reporter affected by the censorship. Immediately following the article's publication. O'Farrill, through Bambarn, put a stop to all stories that mentioned opposition parties. Politically-related articles of any type were also to be closely scrutinized before publication by O'Farrill's son, who was appointed to supervise operations at The News. The biggest story that week in Mexico was about the "terrorist" opposition supporters who had, according to government reports, burned stores, beat up PRI members, and fled to the United States. The News ran one story, which was taken from a wire service, about how Tamaulipas police sought the arrest of 12 PRD supporters. After several meetings among reporters, the staff decided to seek ways to protest the publishers' actions, starting with removing bylines from all stories. The protest failed soon after, however, in part because of lack of support from some staff members and a new policy that docked a day's pay if the reporter did not publish a bylined story on any given day. At that point, many of the reporters, including myself, had decided to resign from the newspaper. The Newsweek article prompted additional articles in Mexican publications such as the Monterrey-based El Norte as well as numerous wire stories about the censorship and the lack of press freedom in Mexico in general, all of which served only to anger O'Farrill even more. Bambarn, at one point, walked into his office visibly upset and yelled at Margulis for 15 minutes, telling him that, "We must wash our dirty laundry in our own house." Other reporters had been interviewed by wire correspondents and gone on the record about problems within the newspaper. But when Margulis published an op-ed piece in the New York Times on November 28, O'Farrill couldn't stand it anymore. Margulis was fired the next day and given his legally mandated severance pay. After a final meeting with Bambarn, Margulis was escorted out of the building by security guards and told he would not be allowed inside again. Margulis' editorial, at least as far as the events at The News were concerned, was simple and direct. "Three days before the Puebla election, I submitted the piece (about Bartlett D!az) to my editors. The next day, I got a call from management: not only would the article not run, but I was not to write about Mr. Bartlett again. The order, I was told, came directly from the publisher...We were told not to write controversial stories: anything with the slightest criticism of the Government will be killed. When we object, we are told: `It's the guy's newspaper,'" Margulis wrote in the New York Times. But Margulis' firing prompted even stronger reactions, which O'Farrill had hoped to avoid. More wire stories and a major piece planned in Proceso prompted Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to call Margulis in for an informal chat. Margulis said later that Salinas had expressed concern that the accusations he had attempted to make were unfounded and that problems in Bartlett D!az's past had been exaggerated. Salinas ended the discussion, according to Margulis, by saying Margulis had no reason to fear for his life and was welcome to stay in Mexico as long as he wanted. Margulis' editorial had also discussed the recent murder of a journalist in Mexico City after the journalist had led a protest against Salinas, demanding an investigation into beatings and threats against journalists in Quintana Roo and Yucat n. The events at The News illustrate a sad reality of how censorship, and especially self-censorship, is practiced at newspapers in Mexico. It is not, as many people think, always a dramatic order from some government office bent on stopping freedom of expression. In fact, most government offices make it a habit of saying the exact opposite. No less than 12 people have resigned from The News since Margulis was fired, but none of them will say the governor was the reason they quit. More likely, they will blame R"mulo O'Farrill for making poor decisions and running a generally corrupt newspaper. Margulis' op-ed piece generated another response, besides those of Salinas and O'Farrill, that explains this even better. On December 21, Manuel Alonso, then Mexico's Consul General in New York City, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times. In it he attempted to separate the problems at The News from the perceived problem of the lack of press freedom in Mexico. He spoke directly to the issue of Ignacio Mendoza Castillo, the journalist murdered in Mexico City. "Mr. Margulis mixed his account of the murder with a conflict he had with his editors. The circumstances are a private matter that concerns The News and Mr. Margulis. The Presidency of Mexico has exercised no pressure on The News or on Mr. Margulis to prevent publication of any article or to modify its content," Alonso wrote to the New York Times. Alonso is probably right and Margulis likely complicated the real issue of censorship by attempting to illustrate the problem with the murder of Mendoza. Alonso points to a report written by the Inter-American Press Association, which formed a special committee to investigate Mendoza's murder, that found information suggesting the self-employed editor's murder grew out of a corrupt loan shark operation he ran. Mexican police have backed this theory, although an official report has never been released. In the Wall Street Journal, December 4, Alejandro Junco, publisher of El Norte and President of the Press Association, said his organization found that "it appears the murder had nothing to do with journalism." But whether or not Mendoza was killed for his work as a journalist does not change the fact that the government maintains control over the media and shows no real signs of letting go. Junco acknowledges this in introducing the findings of the Inter- American Press Association's (IAPA) investigations into the Mendoza case. "What the IAPA mission discovered was a hazy world of government-press interaction and intimidation that must change if Mexican journalism is to rise to the objective standards expected in a modern society," Junco wrote in the Wall Street Journal article. It seems that whenever the subject of press freedom in Mexico is discussed, the first subject mentioned is human rights and, specifically, the tortures and murders that do indeed happen in Mexico. But as the events at The News show, censorship of the media takes many forms but is even more insidious when carried out without violence and instead infiltrates the business of printing or broadcasting the news. A 1992 report by the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (CCPJ) entitled "The Press and the Perfect Dictatorship" examines several important areas regarding press freedom in Mexico. But its author, Ellen Saenger, chooses to stress murders of journalists and other human rights violations above all else. The first recommendation she makes to the CCPJ is to "urge Mexican authorities to conclude investigations into the case of murdered journalists as quickly as possible and that those responsible be brought to justice according to Mexican law." But Saenger finds no conclusive evidence to connect the murders of 54 journalists between 1982 and 1991 to government repression. On the other hand, Saenger does point out several important problems with the government-media relation that tell much about how censorship continues to be such a deeply-rooted media controlling mechanism. The government-run paper company, PIPSA, was for years the sole supplier of newsprint and as such could stop supply to unfriendly newspapers. Recently, the government allowed other paper companies to join the market but PIPSA continues to be the only reliable and economical option. The government also controls the country's newspaper distribution system through PRI-affiliated unions. The Proceso issue containing the Margulis interview and other stories about Bartlett Diaz never arrived at newsstands in Puebla. Televisa, the television monopoly, has at least 90 percent of all viewers, leaving independent stations hardly surviving. While the government often points to the fact that Televisa was privatized years ago, the relationships between some of Mexico's wealthiest families who own Televisa and government officials are well- known. O'Farrill, who at one time held a controlling interest in Televisa, has often been criticized for his business relations with government officials. Ninety percent of Mexican journalists receive much of their wages from bribes, often called supplementary income. Saenger writes, "For example, a business reporter will receive an `envelope' from the finance ministry, the agriculture reporter from the agricultural ministry. If a reporter becomes too critical, the amount of money in the envelope may be reduced or dwindle to nothing." While no single one of these well-known media control practices would be sufficient, they add up to an extremely efficient government tool to get what they want published and keep the rest out of the public's eyes and ears. The end of 1992, however, brought several changes that may or may not be significant, depending on how well they are carried out. Alonso alluded to many of these in his response to Margulis. He noted that the Presidency has already stopped paying for journalists to accompany the president on international trips (although the practice hasn't stopped on domestic tours). He also applauded the National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH) for taking on 55 cases of alleged offenses against journalists, on which it has issued recommendations in 39 of the cases. Regard- ing bribes given to journalists, he said the government is instituting a new policy of reviewing press and public relations budgets of government agencies. "Our government's policy is to protect freedom of expression and to improve the practice of independent journalism," Alonso wrote. Alonso's final statement regarding bribes has recently become a big issue in Mexico. Front page stories in all major newspapers have decried the paperwork nightmare that Hacienda (Mexico's equivalent to the IRS) will create by forcing journalists to register all money received in addition to their salaries. A recent cartoon in La Jornada depicted a journalist sitting in an interview unable to take notes because she is still filling out the tax documents for the bribe the government official speaking just gave her. But the new tax measure is in no way intended to stop bribe giving and taking. According to one government official, it is merely intended to make the exchange more "transparent," a word used often in Mexican politics suggesting that officials are suddenly willing to write any bad deeds they commit on a piece of paper for everyone to see. "The important measure that is included in this change is to make transparent whatever payment made or quantity received between a journalist and a public office...This is not an attempt to punish journalists for receiving, for any reason, a payment from a public office," said Jos Carre$o Carlon, director of public relations for the President's Office, in an interview with La Jornada. President Salinas has made much of freedom of the press, often making references to Mexico's commitment to free speech during discussions of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Some of his new measures may alter the relationship between the media and the government. But a significant change in favor of the freedom of expression will not come until the owners of Mexico's media, as well as their friends, decide to free themselves from the sticky relationships that oblige them to constantly rethink what to publish or not publish. If all publishers and broadcast directors continue to play Artemio Cruz and refuse to detach themselves from editorial decisions, the news will continue to be secondary to business deals and back scratching amongst the elite classes.