Newspaper Self-Censorship Makes Some News Risky For Mexican Journalists

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Mexican government has taken several steps in recent months showing its commitment to democracy and a free press. Under-the-table payments to journalists by government officials, for example, are illegal now. But old habits die hard.

The March 9 firing of the opinion- page editor of Mexico's only English-language daily newspaper - The News - shows that self-censorship still exists here, analysts say.

"In some newspapers - El Norte and El Financiero - self-censorship doesn't exist," says Sergio Sarmiento, an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica and columnist for El Norte and El Financiero. "In others, there's a tremendous amount of self-censorship - sometimes to protect their own interests, sometimes to protect what they see as the government's interests."

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Ironically, Richard Seid was fired for an article on the lack of press freedoms in Mexico that appeared on the March 8 opinion page of The Christian Science Monitor. The article cited several examples of censorship, including a case at his own newspaper. Mr. Seid said his employer "clumsily fired a reporter [in December] for critical but accurate reporting." Seid wrote that the owner and publisher, Romulo O'Farrill, a staunch supporter of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), lost governmen t subsidies because of the incident.

Seid was fired for disloyalty, says Patricia Nelson, editor of The News. "If you want to stab your publisher in the back, you should resign first, then write about it," asserts Ms. Nelson, who became editor Feb. 1. She says she did not consult with the publisher before dismissing Seid.

In addition to The News, Mr. O'Farrill owns Novedades, a Spanish-language Mexico City daily newspaper, and publishes several magazines, including the Mexican edition of Vogue.

Seid says his attempts to discuss the issue with the publisher after he was fired were rebuffed.

Asked if the statements made in the Seid article were untrue, Nelson said, "I don't know.... Maybe in some places you can run things like that but not here. The publisher doesn't want anything like that. He's the boss. It's his policy." Nelson says Seid was "devious" in the way he published the Monitor piece because he did not identify himself as the opinion-page editor of The News.

Although The News wouldn't publish Seid's article, another Mexico City newspaper, El Universal, did publish a wire-service version in Spanish on March 9. The paragraphs citing censorship at La Jornada and The News were edited out.

Seid says he first turned to the Monitor as an outlet when an opinion piece on the North American Free Trade Agreement was rejected by his employer in December. It was subsequently published in The Monitor on Jan. 6.

The Seid dismissal comes on the heels of the December firing of another News reporter. Zachary Margulis was dismissed after publishing an article in the New York Times on Nov. 28 criticizing censorship at The News. In that case, Mr. Margulis wrote about a US Drug Enforcement Administration report in which an informant had linked the current governor of Puebla state, Manuel Bartlett Diaz, to the murder of a Vera Cruz journalist. The News refused to print the article. The reason cited by Margulis was that the publisher is a long-time supporter of the PRI and close friend of Mr. Bartlett.

During the Margulis incident, The News imposed a two-month ban on political coverage of opposition parties. "There was an order barring statements by opposition parties from appearing in the newspaper," says Jim Silver, a political writer. He quit in December, with a half-dozen other reporters. "I would have stayed longer," says Mr. Silver, who had worked for The News for 1 1/2 years. "But my beat was wiped out. My only option was to stay on and write press releases."

Under the new editor, The News has begun allowing statements by opposition parties to appear in news articles.

The administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is clearly embarrassed by such incidents of censorship. Mr. Salinas met personally with Margulis in December. His administration has taken numerous steps to bolster the credibility of the press. For example, in January the government officially banned the chayote, an age-old practice of paying a monthly bribe to reporters, columnists, and cartoonists. Journalists who travel with the president now must pay their own expenses. And the Mexican govern ment is selling off several television, radio, and newspaper outlets.

"There's no doubt about the movement toward a freer and open press. But there are still a lot of old methods being employed," notes Federico Estevez Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, a private university here.

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