Using Billions in Government Cash, Mexico Controls News Media

A news conference in Mexico City. The president’s administration has spent nearly $2 billion on advertising in the past five years.

MEXICO CITY — Running a newspaper, radio station or television outlet in Mexico usually means relying on a single, powerful client that spends exorbitant sums on advertising with a simple warning: “I do not pay you to criticize me.”

That client is the government of Mexico.

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year in government money on advertising, creating what many Mexican media owners, executives and journalists call a presidential branding juggernaut capable of suppressing investigative articles, directing front pages and intimidating newsrooms that challenge it.

Despite vowing to regulate government publicity, Mr. Peña Nieto has spent more money on media advertising than any other president in Mexico’s history — nearly $2 billion in the past five years, according to government data compiled by Fundar, a transparency group. It found that his administration spent more than twice the generous media budget Mexican lawmakers allotted it for 2016 alone.

And that is just the federal money.

Leaders from all parties marshal hundreds of millions of dollars in state money for advertising each year, money they dole out to favored news outlets, Fundar calculated. According to the executives and editors involved in the negotiations, some government press secretaries openly demand positive coverage from news organizations before signing an advertising contract.

The result is a media landscape across Mexico in which federal and state officials routinely dictate the news, telling outlets what they should — and should not — report, according to dozens of interviews with executives, editors and reporters. Hard-hitting stories are often softened, squashed or put off indefinitely, if they get reported at all. Two-thirds of Mexican journalists admit to censoring themselves.

“If a professional reporter wants to cover the dirty elements of what is happening in the country today, neither the government nor private companies will give them a penny,” said Enrique Krauze, a historian who edits Letras Libres, a Mexican magazine that receives some government money. “This is one of the biggest flaws in Mexican democracy.”

Mr. Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, also known as the PRI, pioneered this system during its 70 years in power. Former President José López Portillo explicitly laid out the government’s expectations decades ago — he was even quoted as saying that he did not pay the media to attack him — and the practice continued when the opposition claimed the presidency in 2000, then again in 2006.

But the government’s influence over the media goes well beyond the advertising spigot, with officials sometimes resorting to outright bribery. In Chihuahua, the former governor spent more than $50 million on publicity, officials say, in a state saddled with huge public debts. Yet that was just the official figure.

Prosecutors have also collected signed receipts for bribes to local journalists — payoffs so common that some reporters were even listed as government contractors, documents show. With so much government money circling around, entire news websites sprang up with a single purpose, prosecutors contend: to support the former governor’s agenda.

“The relation between the media and power is one of the gravest problems in Mexico,” said Javier Corral, the new governor of Chihuahua. “There is collusion, an arrangement, in terms of how the public resources are managed to reward or punish the media. It’s carrot and stick: ‘Behave well, and I’ll give you lots of money and advertising. Act bad and I’ll get rid of it.’”

Pick up a newspaper, tune into a radio station or flip on the television in Mexico and you are greeted with a barrage of government advertising. In some papers, nearly every other page is claimed by an ad promoting one government agency or another. At times, as much airtime is dedicated to venerating the government’s work as it is to covering the news.

The extraordinary spending comes at a time when the Mexican government is cutting budgets across the board, including for health, education and social services. The federal government spent as much on advertising last year, about $500 million, as it did to support students in its main scholarship program for public universities.

The co-opting of the news media is more fundamental than any one administration’s spending on self-promotion, historians say. It reflects the absence of the basic pact that a free press has with its readers in a democracy, where holding the powerful accountable is part of its mission.

“It’s a common problem in the developing world, but the problem is much, much graver in Mexico,” said David Kaye, the United Nations special representative for freedom of expression. “It’s remarkable what the government spends.”

Most news outlets have relied on public advertising for so long that they would not survive without the government, giving officials tremendous leverage to push for certain stories and prevent others, analysts, reporters and media owners say.

“This is an economic problem,” said Carlos Puig, a columnist at the newspaper Milenio, which receives substantial government funding. “The classic American model does not exist here.”

Last year, a public outcry erupted after a top official in the Peña Nieto administration went to Milenio’s offices to complain about a story. The article, criticizing a national anti-hunger initiative, was taken down from the newspaper’s website right after the visit.

The piece later went back up, with a far less damning headline. The newspaper says the reason was simple: The article was “deplorable,” an inaccurate and “vulgar” attempt to smear an official, requiring an apology to readers. But journalists and democracy advocates, citing the power of government advertising, cried foul and the reporter resigned in protest, claiming to have been censored. Eventually, the original headline was restored.

Overt government interference is often unnecessary. Sixty-eight percent of journalists in Mexico said they censored themselves, not only to avoid being killed, but also because of pressure from advertisers and the impact on the company’s bottom line, according to a three-year study by researchers at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City and the University of Miami.

Francisco Pazos did. He worked for years at one of the largest papers in Mexico, Excélsior. One of his most frustrating moments came in late 2013, he said, when the government was in the throes of a fight with commuters over a transit fare increase.

Mr. Pazos said he tried to explore the commuters’ anger in detail, until an editor stopped him, telling him the paper was no longer going to cover the controversy.

“I came to understand there were issues I simply couldn’t cover,” Mr. Pazos said. “And eventually, I stopped looking for those kinds of stories. Eventually, you become a part of the censorship yourself.”

Many media owners and directors say they have so few independent sources of income outside the government that they face a stark choice: wither from a lack of resources, or survive as accomplices to their own manipulation.

“Of course, the use of public money limits freedom of expression, but without this public money there would be no media in Mexico at all,” said Marco Levario, the director of the magazine Etcétera. “We are all complicit in this.”

The model means that some media outlets in Mexico can scarcely afford their own principles. Twenty years ago, the newspaper La Jornada was one of the most beloved in the nation, a critical voice and a must-read for intellectuals and activists who carried the tabloid around town, tucked under their arms.

But the years have not been kind to the paper. A few years ago, it was on the cusp of financial ruin. Then the government intervened, rescuing the publication with more than $1 million in official advertising and, critics say, claiming its editorial independence in the process.

“Now they own them,” Mr. Levario said. “The paper has been like a spokesman for the president.”

Other business ties link news outlets to the government. Many media companies are part of larger conglomerates that build roads or other public projects. The same person who owns Grupo Imagen, which includes radio, television and print media, also owns a major construction firm, Prodemex. It has earned more than $200 million in the past five years building government facilities, and will play a role in the construction of the new Mexico City airport.

La Jornada, Excélsior and Excélsior’s parent company, Grupo Imagen, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The nation’s Supreme Court recently took up the issue of official advertising, ruling in November that the government must act on the president’s promise to regulate the flow of public money in an unbiased way.

“The absence of regulation in official publicity allows for the arbitrary use of communications budgets, which restricts indirectly freedom of expression,” said Arturo Zaldívar, a Supreme Court justice.

In a statement, the president’s office referred to its official advertising as a form of constitutionally backed publicity that enables it to inform and educate the public about its work. But it rejects the assertion that such spending skews the media’s coverage of important issues or stifles free speech in any way.

“Every day journalists in Mexico question, with absolute freedom, the government’s actions and those of our representatives, including the president,” it said. “There is a permanent criticism from Mexican journalists toward the government. Just by opening any newspaper, turning on the television and going to social media, you can verify this.”

When he came to office in 2012, the president vowed to more fairly distribute the government’s advertising dollars. Shortly after his election, Mr. Peña Nieto’s team came up with a plan to regulate media spending, according to three people familiar with the proposal.

But Aurelio Nuño, the president’s former chief of staff, said the effort never got far enough to produce a draft of any legislation that could yield action. The effort was subsumed by other campaign promises and left behind, he said.

As the editor for recruiting at the newspaper Reforma, Diana Alvarez has grown accustomed to the flexible definition of journalism in Mexico.

A few years back, she said, she interviewed one young woman from a large paper in Mexico City. The woman, who had a master’s degree in journalism, said her job at the paper consisted of creating files of negative press clippings on governors across the country.

Those files were turned over to the paper’s sales department, which then approached the governors to sell them “coverage plans” to improve their public image, the young woman explained.

Mrs. Alvarez rattled off more examples. One applicant, an editing candidate, boasted that he knew how to work his relationships with politicians to score more advertising money.

He called it “heating them up,” which involved showing the target a critical story that his newspaper was planning to publish. Then, as he explained to Mrs. Alvarez, an advertising contract with his paper would help “put out the fire.”

Yet another applicant, a former state government employee, said he knew how to “deal with the press,” Mrs. Alvarez recalled. He told her how he had been in charge of distributing envelopes filled with cash for reporters as bribes.

“I wish I could say these are isolated cases, or just a few, but it isn’t the case,” Mrs. Alvarez said. “There have been many like these, where they come and speak about these practices in a way that makes you realize they have normalized them.”

Daniel Moreno, the director of the digital publication Animal Político, says he receives almost nothing from the federal government, and relatively small amounts from state governors.

It’s not because he doesn’t want the money, Mr. Moreno says. It’s just that the kind of critical coverage his news team does is not rewarded with government contracts, he contends.

Recently, Mr. Moreno said he received a call from officials in the state of Morelos, which spends about $3,000 a month with him on advertising. The governor’s wife was going through a rough period over claims that she was politicizing aid for earthquake victims — an accusation she rejected — so a state official suggested that Animal Político do a few positive stories on her.

Mr. Moreno politely declined.

“They were pretty offended,” he said with a shrug. “And I’m pretty sure that money is gone.”

Still, that was better than it is with most states, Mr. Moreno said. As a policy, Animal Político publishes a banner on pieces that are paid advertising, so readers know the work is not independent journalism, he said.

But officials in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Sonora have refused to pay for content unless it is published without the banner, he said. Mr. Moreno refused.

“I’ve lost more money than I’ve earned that way,” he said with a laugh.

This month, news organizations came together to denounce the violence against the press in Mexico, where the murders of journalists hit a record this year. Thirty-nine media groups signed on.

But a few, including Animal Político, were missing — on purpose. They had insisted on some extra lines in the announcement about the damage that official publicity does to free speech.

A small uproar ensued, they said. Some large newspapers that rely heavily on government money objected.

Ultimately, the letter was sent without the lines — and without the signature of Mr. Moreno and his compatriots. The news media, it appeared, would not challenge its livelihood.

On Aug. 23, Ricardo Anaya, the president of the opposition National Action Party and now a candidate for president in next year’s election, woke up to find his name and family splashed across the front page of El Universal, a major newspaper.

The story went into details about his father-in-law’s real estate empire and, more pointedly, the ways in which Mr. Anaya’s political career had helped propel that fortune.

The narrative was a familiar one in Mexico: A political leader had used his influence to enrich himself and his family. El Universal laid out the addresses and values of the various properties, and even published head shots of his entire extended family, 14 people in all. News outlets across the country carried the story.

The only thing missing, a court ultimately decided, was accuracy. Mr. Anaya managed to show that much of the information was flawed, skewed or simply wrong. While his in-laws clearly owned a number of properties, many had been in their possession before his political career began, public deeds showed.

Even more puzzling, Mr. Anaya said, were the photographs of his family. They had not been public before, as far as the family knew. In fact, they looked an awful lot like passport pictures.

Given that such photos were held by the foreign ministry, which issues passports, Mr. Anaya suspected that his rivals in the government had leaked the pictures to the newspaper.

“They are trying to destroy my political career with this campaign,” he contended. “You can’t compete with a government that pays $500 million a year to the media.”

For the next two months, the newspaper dedicated more than 20 front pages to Mr. Anaya, accusing him of misusing public funds, benefiting financially from his position and fracturing his party.

Mr. Anaya filed suit. In October, the court found that El Universal had misrepresented his in-laws’ wealth and wrongly accused Mr. Anaya of using his office to benefit them.

El Universal claimed that it was entitled to publish the story under the right to freedom of expression, an argument the judge questioned because the paper “had not based its investigation in facts.” The newspaper has appealed the court’s decision.

The case raises national questions of trust in a country where the news media receives so much money in government advertising.

El Universal receives more government advertising than any other newspaper in the nation, about $10 million last year, Fundar found. Critics argue that the newspaper has become something of an attack dog for the government ahead of presidential elections next year.

The suggestion is “false and offensive,” the newspaper says. Government advertising “does not affect in any way the editorial line of the newspaper,” it says, adding that “thinkers of all political parties” are represented in its pages.

Not all its journalists agree. In July, a half-dozen columnists announced their resignations in protest over what they called biased coverage, saying the owners had destroyed the institution’s credibility.

Salvador Frausto, an investigative editor who earned the paper many awards, also left. Colleagues said he was clearly uncomfortable with how close the paper was becoming to the PRI and its new presidential candidate, José Antonio Meade.

The person who replaced Mr. Frausto as the new investigative editor was most recently a press officer at the foreign affairs ministry, according to his LinkedIn profile.

And the news director of El Universal had close ties with the new candidate: His wife was Mr. Meade’s international press chief at the finance ministry.

The paper says that there is no conflict of interest, and that it does not tolerate biased coverage of any kind.

But it isn’t the first time the paper’s journalists have challenged its independence. Writers said that in 2012, when Mr. Peña Nieto was running for office, editors and news directors began changing columns critical of the candidate, sometimes at the last minute, without warning them.

“The reason I resigned is because I no longer felt like I was guaranteed a free space,” Andrés Lajous, now a doctoral student at Princeton University, wrote in an article recounting the events.

Witnesses were calling it an execution.

In January 2015, Laura Castellanos, an award-winning reporter, was sent by editors at El Universal to cover a pair of shootouts involving the federal police.

At the time, self-defense groups had taken up arms to fight against organized crime, and Ms. Castellanos, who had written extensively on the subject, was considered an expert.

She spent 10 days reporting the story, tapping old sources and interviewing witnesses in the state of Michoacán, where 16 had been killed and dozens wounded.

The issue was especially delicate because a close ally of the president, Alfredo Castillo, who had been appointed to oversee the security situation in Michoacán, claimed that the deaths came from a shootout with armed assailants.

Ms. Castellanos said she recorded interviews with 39 people — victims, bystanders, hospital workers — and came to a different conclusion. The federal police had summarily executed unarmed suspects, including some as they surrendered on their knees with their arms in the air, she said her reporting showed.

After days of editing and fact-checking, she said the story was ready to run. Only it didn’t.

Ms. Castellanos and her editors were not surprised. Mr. Peña Nieto was already under heavy public pressure for his handling of the disappearance of 43 college students, as well as his wife’s purchase of a multimillion-dollar home from a major government contractor.

But after two and a half months — during which time one of her sources was tortured and killed, she said — Ms. Castellanos worried her story would never run.

Working with lawyers, she said she discovered a loophole in her contract — one that allowed her to publish the material elsewhere.

One of the few publications willing to take the story was a new website founded by Carmen Aristegui, another award-winning reporter, who had lost her radio station job after breaking the story about the president’s wife.

But the morning the Michoacán story was scheduled to publish, under the headline “It Was the Feds,” Ms. Aristegui’s website went dark.

Eventually, they figured out what happened: The website had been hacked.

The two eventually published the story, but the case again raised questions about independence in a country awash in government advertising.

Neither the killings, nor the hacking, have been fully resolved. El Universal said it had not published Ms. Castellanos’s story because it did not meet the newspaper’s standards.

The next year, Ms. Castellano’s article was awarded Mexico’s most coveted journalistic prize: the national award for investigative reporting.

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