Domingo, 23 de marzo de 2008
Mexico’s mercenary legacy Rafael Rodríguez Castañeda, editor of the Mexican magazine Proceso and author of Prensa Vendida (Editorial Grijalbo, 1993)

For decades the Mexican media was paid to do the government’s bidding. But what future lies in store for the press after last year’s defeat of the all-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) and the electoral victory of President Vicente Fox?

On New Year’s Day 1994, the world was astonished by the sight of a hooded guerrilla fighter giving a televised press conference in the main square of the Mexican town of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Sub-comandante Marcos, the flamboyant leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, had decided to exploit the media as part of his movement’s strategy. His first goal was achieved: in the smokey aftermath of New Year celebrations, the Mexican people awoke to find a war on their home turf and an abrupt end to the modernizing dream of the then president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

The media embraced the Zapatista war as they might an unexpected lover. They longed to be witnesses and players in the fighting around the mountainous state of Chiapas—and they got what they wanted.
The 10 days that shook Mexico were covered fully and freely by the country’s media. Editors and reporters basked in the freedom and independence they had previously forsaken, learning a lesson that only a few of them had absorbed up to that point—press freedom could be good business. As a result, part of the Mexican press discovered a liberty and an influence it has clung to ever since.

The Untouchable and the Invincible

But what was the press like before the year when Mexicans lived in danger? In 1968, during the big student demonstrations that led to the infamous October 2 massacre in Mexico City’s Tlaltelolco Square [in which at least 500 people are believed to have died], the cry of “prensa vendida!” [mercenary press] rang out through the city streets, encapsulating the fury people felt for the largely corrupt press. The PRI—nicknamed “The Invincible” for having by fair means or foul won every election since it was founded in 1929 as the National Revolutionary Party—thrust its roots deep into a rotten ground that spawned, among other things, a docile press.

To start with, the government controlled all supplies of newsprint. Newspapers were allowed to pay for it later, and in some cases were never asked to pay at all. The same went for their employees’ social security contributions. Some companies were exempted from taxes. Most newspapers and magazines depended on advertising from the state. Politicians and public officials bribed journalists and editors as a matter of routine, handing over so much cash (called embutes or chayotes in the journalistic argot) that many depended more on these payments than on their own salaries. As for news, the press—with a few exceptions—simply fed at the trough of information that the government had decided to make public.

The slavishness of the media was especially visible in its attitude to the president of the day. Under the Mexican system, the president had an almost divine status. As owner of the country’s destiny, he was also regarded as master of its citizens’ souls. He was the Untouchable. Though guaranteed in the national constitution, the freedom of the press was nevertheless treated by editors as a gift from this benevolent president, and thus an object for the deepest gratitude.
Exceptions to this miserable state of affairs played key roles in determining the later evolution of the press. In 1968, Julio Scherer García took over Excélsior, one of the country’s biggest newspapers. He soon turned it into the most influential one, and it became recognized as one of the world’s 10 best newspapers. Faced with its systematic criticism and attacks, the tyrannical government reacted in the manner it knew best. In 1976, the government of Luis Echeverria organized and funded a palace coup inside the paper, and Scherer García was forced out.
He and a team of reporters then founded the weekly magazine Proceso, which has been the bastion of the oppostion press ever since it first appeared on November 6, 1976. Following its example, some sectors of the traditional press made timid attempts over the next 20 years to break their bad habit of depending on the government. New papers sprang up, with different aims and strategies, but in general the corrupt rules of the game were preserved until January 1, 1994, the day President Salinas launched what he saw as the glittering triumph for his economic policy: the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) between Mexico, the United States and Canada.

From then on, criticism of the government became routine. The monolithic political system began to show cracks which some of the media ventured into, more often drawn by instinct than a high degree of professionalism and responsibility. Ernesto Zedillo, who took over from Salinas de Gortari, could not and did not want to curb the mounting backlash against the PRI system. Either through indifference or scorn, the press was let off the leash.

Many papers were confused. They didn’t want to stop acting like poodles, but they sensed that a change of master was imminent. By the time of the 2000 presidential elections, an unfettered press was in place. The leading candidates were the PRI’s Francisco Labastida and a rising political star called Vicente Fox, officially standing for the right-wing National Action Party, but who was launched into the race by a solid group of independent businesspeople, marketing experts and some social organizations unconnected to political party machines.
In fact, Mexicans were ready to dump the PRI, and on July 2, 2000, Fox beat Labastida by a landslide; 71 years of history ended without a hint of violence. But did a period of transition then begin? Perhaps, but perhaps not. The more sceptical argue that Fox is not the statesman needed to preside over a genuine national transition. Others rightly note that the keystones of Mexico’s oligarchic power structure are still untouched. Whatever the truth of the matter, the press has played a major part in the political change. It helped demystify the regime and above all show that the president was no longer the Untouchable, and the PRI no longer the Invincible.

So what comes next? In its special issue on Fox’s election, Proceso summed up the challenge now facing the country and the press. The cover shows supporters of Fox carrying a coffin painted in the PRI’s colours with the words “And now what?” written above it.
A year later, the question remains. The Mexican press is operating in an ill-defined context. It has replaced its old docility with persistent opposition, helped bring about the change in power and is now wondering what side of the fence it can or should be on—criticizing the new government or generously giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Is the press truly ready to be part of a genuine transition? I am not optimistic. Mexico has a high birth rate as far as the press is concerned—every week a new publication seems to hit the streets—but there are very few readers. After last year’s election fever, with unemployment now on the rise and purchasing power in decline, readers are drifting away. Without state subsidies, small or family-owned papers and those stuck to the ways of the past are disappearing.

The challenge is how to adapt to the new situation. In Fox’s pragmatic world there is only room for the strongest and, it would appear, for the business-minded. In Mexico, the information industry could well draw foreign investors, especially now that the doors of our economy are not just open but have disappeared altogether.

It remains to be seen how much press criticism Fox’s government, which is itself a child of the opposition, is prepared to tolerate. New governments tend to be over-sensitive toward the press. We shall have to wait and see.

Chichicaste. El Salvador

Tags: Prensa Vendida, Mentiras y medios, Mexico

Publicado por Tepez @ 1:19  | Mentiras y Medios
Comentarios (0)  | Enviar