On the campaign trail three years ago, Enrique Peña Nieto promised his administration would usher in a new era of relations between government and media.
Peña Nieto vowed to promote constitutional reforms that would strengthen transparency for government advertising contracts while protecting freedom of the press and citizens’ right to information. But since taking office in 2012, his administration has done little to fulfill those pledges or champion the public’s right to know.
Granted, Peña Nieto built consensus in Congress to pass an unprecedented telecommunications reform that aims to expand competition. However, this new law still fails at addressing the obscure relationship between government and those in charge of holding it accountable.
Three years into the administration, the federal government continues to be the biggest source of advertising revenue for media companies. And it’s not shy about using its money as leverage to control the flow of information.
According to a report by media watchdog Articulo 19 and the Fundar Center for Analysis and Research, the president has spent close to $1 billion in advertising during his first two years in office. That unprecedented level of government spending on publicity, which has vastly exceeded the allocated budget, has gone mostly to the country’s biggest media conglomerates, which critics say helped to pave Peña Nieto’s way to the presidency.
The administration has also failed to uphold its commitments to transparency. The government released contradictory information about the disappearance of the 43 student protesters in Ayotzinapa last year, and lied about the prison break of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman last July. We know that thanks to independent experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and a video leaked by an anonymous whistleblower.
Mexico remains one of the deadliest countries for journalists. Over the past five years 41 journalists have been killed and at least 20 more disappeared, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Many other reporters are threatened and subjected to violence, in some cases by government officials who try to censor the media. The fact that most journalist killings and disappearances remain unsolved has a chilling effect on freedoms in Mexico, which has become a world leader in attacks on the press.
Last but not least, is the administration’s feud with critical reporters. November marked the one year anniversary of an investigation that revealed the existence of La Casa Blanca, a $7 million mansion purchased by First Lady Angelica Rivera from a prominent government contractor. Since then, all the journalists who were involved in the investigation have been fired from their jobs—allegedly for unrelated matters—while Peña Nieto and his wife were cleared of any wrongdoing by a government commission appointed by the president.
Television remains a powerful tool in Mexico, but people are rapidly losing faith in traditional media and its relationship with government. Audiences are seeking alternatives, mostly online. Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools are rapidly growing and Mexicans are increasingly using them to express dissenting views and get their daily news fix. Engagement and hashtag creation in Mexico is one of the highest in the world, and new digital platforms are being used to meet a growing demand for independent outlets.
But we can’t fool ourselves. Internet access is still insufficient and traditional news broadcasts remain the primary source of information for the vast majority of Mexicans. And those connected to the internet are not free from political propaganda, which has also proliferated online in the form of bots and other social media intrusions.
Still, the internet and an increasingly globalized world is bringing change to Mexico, which is manifesting itself in demands for more accountability and transparency. There once was a time when deep ties between government and media were just frowned upon, but now this is being viewed as a problem that hinders Mexico’s already fragile democracy.