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Give & Take

How Government Advertising Corrupts Media Freedom

Between 2013 and 2016, the Mexican government spent 2 billion US dollars in promoting its image through mass media. The television sector received 35% of these resources, followed by the radio with 19%, the printed media with 17% and the online media with 6%.

After the Center of Analysis and Investigation Fundar published its results in a 2017 report, it triggered public discomfort about the control over media and the resulting limits to freedom of expression.

As a response, close to one hundred independent civil organizations, research centers, academics and digital platforms joined the collective movement #MediosLibres, an initiative that demanded from the Mexican parliament to pass a law to regulate the spending and distribution of government advertising, as it was also instructed by the Supreme Court of Justice.

On April 25 2018, the Senate finally approved the General Law of Social Communication, also known as the Chayote Law (in reference to the journalist who usually expresses opinions in favor of the government in office). The problem with this regulation - in force since January 2019 - is that it does not contemplate the creation of mechanisms or independent bodies capable of guaranteeing a transparent process when awarding contracts.

In a way, this is a measure that institutionalises the discretionary delivery of official advertising, which also threatens freedom of expression. That is why #MediosLibres and several experts on the subject have asked the new Congress - installed in September 2018 - to repeal this law, to create one that really includes civil society's proposals.  

The most dominant media have not made any declarations related to this, since they used to be the primary beneficiaries from the budget for government advertising. Among the media that received the largest share of this budget item are: Grupo Televisa (17%) and TV Azteca (9.8%); but also, the journal El Universal (2.7%) and Grupo Fórmula (2.7%), according to the report from Fundar. This report additionally revealed that the previous government spent 72% more than the resources authorized by the parliament.

A New York Times report revealed that the administration of the President Enrique Peña Nieto pressured the Mexican media not to publish news that were unfavorable and to give priority to news and messages issued directly from the government press offices.

A Lot in Very Few Hands

There are more than thousand officially registered media providers in the country that are eligible to receive budget for government publicity. However, between 40 and 50 percent of these 2 billion dollars – a quantity that equals the costs for housing reconstruction after the September 2017 earthquake – was given to only a dozen of media outlets, among which are the 20th century media elites.

Televisa, TV Azteca and recently Grupo Imagen received most of the resources for government publicity on television; Fórmula, Centro, Imagen, MVS and Acir were among the broadcasters that received the largest share of government advertising on radio; El Universal, Milenio, Excélsior, Los Soles, La Jornada and even La Crónica de hoy – a daily newspaper with very low print out – were in the list of newspapers with most government contracts.

The online media with largest audience share, such as Aristegui Noticias, Sin Embargo and Animal Político, received very small amounts from the government. However, founded less than a decade ago and identified as government critics, these digital media became the most visited in the last few years, with 2 million unique visits each.

A similar pattern can be observed with those print media that maintain an independent editorial policy, such as the influential journal Reforma and the magazine Proceso. The last one is also one of the most read online platforms, according to the measurements of ComScore.

The position of the current government headed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who took office in December 2018, is to reduce official advertising spending by 50%. For 2019, the budget contemplated in this goal will be around 4.2 billion pesos. Although in 2018 the approved budget was lower ($3.3 billion pesos), the government of Peña Nieto ended up spending almost four times more than projected.

The “Captured Media”

Experts such as Manuel Alejandro Guerrero and Mireya Márquez-Ramírez, from the Ibero-American University, have pointed out that alliances of complicity between the media and the political elites favor the media concentration; and that the media on the other hand has been historically legitimizing the political power.

In their book Media Systems and Communication Policies in Latin America, published in English by Palgrave Macmillan, they explain that the nature of the so called captured liberal media is a phenomenon typical for Latin America. They further explain that these media are liberal since they are designed under the model of private financing and are ruled by the market; but at the same time, they are captured, since in comparison to being liberal they are not guided by the public interest but are being subordinated and conditioned in different degrees by the political, economic and governmental interests. Guerrero and Márquez Ramírez emphasize the necessity of stronger regulation and stronger informative character of the Mexican media.

Author of several books about communication media, the sociologist Raúl Trejo Delarbre claims that  government advertising is a typically Mexican perversion. Although in many other countries there is a public budget destined it, nowhere else do the ruling politicians have such an amount of money at their disposal to promote themselves. Government advertising is so embedded in the Mexican political culture, especially when it comes to the interwoven relationship between the executive power and the media, that any proposal for more regulation in this sphere would come as a surprise to many.

From the 42 media outlets analyzed by MOM Mexico, 38 received important amounts of money for government advertising. The other five that don’t are influential news websites which were not on the government’s list of favorites: Aristegui Noticias, Sin Embargo, Animal Político and Proceso.

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