Marcelo J. García
You have not seen anything about media influence on politics in Latin America until you have seen Mexico. As the region’s second-largest economy goes to the polls to pick a new leader tomorrow, the presidential campaign exposed more than ever before the embedded interests of some of its politicos and the media establishment, most notably the Televisa empire.
The public debate in Mexico needed some help from foreign press friends. Britain’s The Guardian published a series of documents indicating that front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI Institutional Revolutionary Party had purchased some favorable coverage from Televisa. The Guardian said it did not have evidence about the authenticity of the documents but that “names, dates and situations” mentioned in them “lined up with events.”
Televisa is not just another television station. It is the largest media business in the Spanish-speaking world and it controls around two-thirds of programming and audience in Mexico’s broadcast television. Its kingmaker powers have been traditionally considered almighty. Peña Nieto is a relatively young politician the English-language foreign press describes as a “telegenic matinee idol,” and whose party, which a Guardian columnist dubbed as “ideologically nebulous,” seeks to reclaim power after a 12-year impasse interrupting a seven-decade command.
While the soap-opera-watching masses are likely to catapult Peña Nieto (and PRI back) to Los Pinos tomorrow, many Mexicans have voiced their anger at what they see as media manipulation in Mexican politics. Parallel to the feel-good coverage deal allegations between Televisa and Peña Nieto, a group of students organized a social-media grassroots movement targeting both PRI and Televisa. The camel’s back was broken by alleged biased coverage by Televisa of a demonstration of 131 students against Peña Nieto at a private university. The station adopted the PRI party line that the protesters were not students but political activists. The movement that followed was named #YoSoy132 (I am number 132) and replicated en masse in social media like Twitter, causing a headache or two in Peña Nieto’s winning camp. Its main demand was freedom of expression and media reform, and its main complaint was that Televisa was “imposing” Peña Nieto’s presidential bid on the Mexican public. A #YoSoy132 group staged a thank-you serenade outside The Guardian offices in London this week.
To have foreign media unearth alleged tricky media plays should be a disgrace for any country’s media system. Televisa reacted in predictable proud fashion, denying the allegations and demanding an apology from The Guardian on the grounds that the British newspaper was engaged in a “defamation campaign” against the network. Televisa has taken a reputational blow, no doubt. One Mexican voter wrote: “This Sunday, Televisa wants us all to set our clocks back 70 years.”
Televisa’s anger at The Guardian prompted a statement from the newspapers’ spokesperson saying that Televisa had been given the opportunity to tell their side of the story but had declined. In the spur of the spat with Televisa, The Guardian also resurfaced some chapters of the Mexican WikiLeaks folder. One US State Department diplomat, for instance, wrote in a cable that it was “widely accepted that the television monopoly Televisa backs the governor (Peña Nieto) and provides him with an extraordinary amount of airtime and other kinds of coverage.” The cable, signed off in September 2009, was titled: “A look at Mexico State, Potemkin village style.” The US Embassy in Mexico was also highly critical of a communications law passed after virtually no debate in 2006 to favour the status quo interests of the two main television stations, Televisa and TV Azteca. “With the campaign season in full swing, no one seems to want to upset Televisa or Azteca (which also stands to gain much from the bill) for fear of losing prime advertising slots at good prices,” reads the cable.
It remains to be seen whether this open discussion on the state of the media in Mexico could eventually lead to reform. Many of the answers will be in the polls tomorrow, but there is also a general trend toward the neutering of broadcasting monopolies that no leader — especially those hailing from the younger generations — should deny.
In the case of Argentina, for instance, the first shows of public unrest at media manipulation date back to the 2001-2002 crisis. Concrete change, policy-wise, only happened almost a decade later, when the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner got Congress to pass new broadcast media legislation largest targeted at the Grupo Clarín conglomerate. The revamping of the mediascape under the terms of the new legislation has only taken baby steps. Peña Nieto’s PRI may not carry the fire of reform. But this campaign seems to have grown the roots for future changes.
Publicado por Buenos Aires Herald el 30-6-2012.