A Heavy Hand On Mexican Papers

The government isn't used to a publisher it can't influence

Right now in Mexico City there is censorship on censorship. The two papers for which I write won't print this column. Why, I don't know. I suspect the heat is on from the government to cool the criticism of a not-too-subtle censorship attempt.

"Mexican Publisher Arrested on Tax Fraud Charge." That was the headline on Sept. 12. It was accompanied by photos taken the previous night of police with automatic weapons searching employees outside the offices of the newspaper El Universal. Recently, the publisher, Juan Ealy Ortiz , had changed the paper's policy. Instead of echoing the ruling party (PRI) government line, El Universal has become critical of President Ernesto Zedillo's administration.

In a tax case, such tactics of 50 police officers were completely unnecessary. A simple attachment of property would have sufficed. Most observers suspect that the show of force was pure intimidation against the freedom of the press. It would not have been the first time the government had used crude tactics to try to control criticism.

Over the past 20-plus years, since the Mexican economy and political system have been under fire, there have been many notorious cases of both overt and covert actions taken against newspapers that have tried to uphold their freedom to oppose.

The major papers that have suffered, to my knowledge, are Excelsior, Unomasuno, La Jornada, and Reforma. Methods of coercion have been diverse, ranging from withholding newsprint when the government had a monopoly on paper distribution, paying an owner to go into "self-imposed" exile, harassment by multiple tax audits, or a boycott by the PRI-ruled newspaper vendors' union.

Normally, the Mexican government doesn't need to resort to heavy-handed methods. Since its subsidies keep the vast majority of the more than 20 daily newspapers from bankruptcy, it has an understood control over editorial content. There is little doubt that the government keeps such a vast array of dailies afloat so that no independent publisher will be able to obtain more than minimal political influence.

Columnists in Mexico don't write against government subsidies for reasons of self-preservation. If there were a survival-of-the- fittest condition, with only two or three major papers continuing to publish, as is the case in most major cities of the world, most Mexico City columnists would be out of jobs.

What the government can't handle is a situation where a publisher is financially secure and decides to be editorially independent, too. This is especially the case when the newspaper in question happens to have the largest circulation among serious periodicals and is gaining readership and prestige (i.e. El Universal).

Make no mistake about it: An attempted high-profile tax-evasion arrest of a publisher critical of the government is suspicious on its face. There are so many other very wealthy probable evaders in Mexico that the singling out of just a handful is discriminatory, to say the least. A couple of businessmen and a boxer have been indicted, but no politicians. With an opposition party now accusing the Mexico City mayor of giving himself an approximate $900,000 bonus last Christmas, and constant revelations of "discretionary" accounts of the president and Cabinet members, there seem to be multiple grounds for investigating many high-ranking government leaders.

It seems as if the government is panicking in the El Universal case. It isn't used to a media outlet it can't influence. It's accustomed to the unwritten arrangements it has with its traditional allies - from the TV networks to the oldest English-language daily. What the government gets from its friends is the comfortable self-censorship that makes all Mexicans victims - including the government itself, which could gain from taking helpful criticism seriously.

As a columnist, I've been hurt in the past. Until a few weeks ago, unless a Mexican had been outside the country and reading The Christian Science Monitor (or occasionally other US papers), he would not have seen my newspaper columns for almost 3-1/2 years.

In Mexico City, I was fired from my position as opinion editor of The News in March 1993, when a column of mine, published by the Monitor and sent around the world to the subscribers of its syndication service, revealed censorship in Mexico and gave true examples based on my personal experience. I told how The News protected the ruling party - and I cited one instance of a PRI friend of the publisher who had been shielded from a distasteful disclosure.

In firing me, the editor said I had been "disloyal to the publisher." I told her that columnists in the United States often condemn their own paper's policies (former columnist Anna Quindlen of The New York Times criticizing that paper's coverage of the William Kennedy Smith rape case, for example), but I was correctly reminded that Mexico was different.

Question: Is it disloyal - or is it necessary - to criticize? Answer: In a democracy, authority figures are supposed to (and do) learn from constructive criticism. There's the rub. Mexico has a long way to go before it becomes a real democracy.

*Richard Seid, an American who has lived in Mexico for 24 years, writes on Mexican politics and society.

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