When Andrés Manuel López Obrador won Mexico's presidential elections last year with a promise to drastically cut the millions of dollars the government spends on press advertising each year, it appeared to signal the end to an opaque system that has been criticized as a way for governments to encourage favorable coverage.
However, the president's first budget for the federal government included an advertising allocation that was US$50 million more than his predecessor had proposed, suggesting that López Obrador may have backtracked on his promises. Moreover, a proposal from civil society groups and journalists to reform a law that allows the practice to continue unchecked appears to have stalled in Congress, despite initial signs that the government would commit to change.
"The government has spoken about spending cuts, about changes in social communication strategies, but there are no guidelines, no clear rules," Rocío Gallegos, the former editor of El Diario, a major newspaper in Ciudad Juárez, told CPJ. "I don't see any intention to create a new law that will regulate this spending."
Jesús Cantú, a spokesperson for the president, rejected the notion that the president was backtracking, and said there were proposals for programs across the federal government that would use objective criteria to distribute funds.
Massive government spending on advertisements has plagued the Mexican media for decades. The adverts generally promote government programs and achievements. The practice is widely accepted as a way for officials on federal and state level to subsidize media with little to no regulation, oversight, or accountability, and as way to pressure journalists into altering or killing critical stories.
Officials have paid for so many adverts and spots over the decades that government money in many cases dominates the budgets of news outlets. A December 2017 New York Times report, citing data from the Mexican investigative group Fundar, found that the federal government spent about US$500 million on advertising in 2016, and that two thirds of Mexican journalists said they censored themselves.
While it is widely accepted that the funds are used to ensure positive coverage, proving it is harder.
In 2015, prominent Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui was fired from her morning talk show on MVS Noticias. The station said she was dismissed over a breach of contract, but Aristegui said in interviews she believed the order came direct from Peña Nieto after she reported on a possible conflict of interest involving his then wife Angélica Rivera and a contractor who had received billions of dollars in government contracts. MVS was one of the biggest recipients of government advertisement during Peña Nieto's administration, according to Media Ownership Monitor Mexico, a project by press freedom groups Cencos and Reporters Without Borders.
Aristegui's dismissal was widely considered by fellow journalists, commentators and analysts as one of the most overt cases of the government using a single, powerful tool--billions of dollars' in advertising--to silence critical journalists.
CPJ was unable to locate a spokesperson for Peña Nieto for comment. CPJ's calls to MVS went unanswered.
Adela Navarro, editor of Zeta, a weekly magazine based in Tijuana, said the situation is similar at state level. Zeta reported in September that Raúl Reynoso Nuño, director of the social communication department of the Baja California state government, had told the magazine the government would no longer place advertisements after Zeta published a story alleging that the governor, Francisco Vega, sold real estate to government officials.
"We had a contract with the government, which was canceled overnight," Navarro told CPJ. "It's a way to pressure media into not being critical."
CP's calls to Reynoso Nuño and Vega went unanswered.
Efforts to regulate government money have so far fallen flat. In response to an injunction filed by Article 19, Mexico's Supreme Court ruled in November 2017 that Congress should draft legislation to regulate federal spending on advertising. However, rather than reining in government advertising, the General Social Communication Law, which went into effect on January 1, legalized existing practices.
A coalition of journalists, media and press freedom groups called Medios Libres (Free Media) drafted a legislative proposal to replace the law. The draft prohibited influencing and censoring reporting, mandated a fairer distribution of advertising funds, allowed smaller, independent media access to the money, and proposed a cap on federal spending on advertising.
López Obrador's incoming administration appeared open to the proposal. Jesús Ramírez Cuevas, a spokesperson for the president, told El Financiero's Adela Micha in September that the use of government advertising was "abusive" and confirmed the new administration's intention to create more objective criteria.
However, the new government's budget allocated more than US$220 million for "social communication" for 2019; higher than what Peña Nieto's government budgeted in its last year.
"The government has not justified how this quantity was budgeted or on which social communication plan or strategy it was based," Medios Libres said in a December press release.
The group's demand that the General Social Communication Law be replaced with more transparent and accountable legislation also appears to be stalled in Congress. No replacement bill has been formally discussed and it is unclear if and when it will be on the agenda.
Cantú, the spokesman for the office of the president, acknowledged the delays. "The proposed law was indeed stuck in Congress because of the workload there, but we hope that lawmakers will ultimately look at it and pick it up again," he told CPJ. Referring to the Medios Libres draft, Cantú added, "I have to point out that many of the elements that this proposed law carried, and that we believe would work well, will be included in our own proposals."
The president has also responded to criticism of his budget, saying during a press conference in January that his government would "no longer bribe media and journalists."
"This money will be used for government advertisement and will be transparent so that everyone knows how the resources will be distributed," he said. However, he was vague about the criteria for determining how the advertising fund would be distributed.
When the Secretariat of the Interior sent a four-page document, which CPJ has reviewed, to outlets in March, it included questions about the volume and characteristics of readership. While it is unclear how the ministry intends to use the data, several editors have told CPJ they worry the regulations could lead to media being unfairly excluded from government advertisement.
Despite slow progress, some reporters and media professionals remain optimistic. "There's an open dialogue, but it's clear that the change in government placed somewhat of a break on the whole process," Adrián López, who is editor-in-chief of the Sinaloa newspaper El Noroeste and a member of Medios Libres, said. "What we're currently seeing, is the government doesn't have a very clear stance on the issue, but the ball is still in their court."
[Reporting from Mexico City]