Mexico Cuts Press Payoffs

New guidelines ban decades-old practice of government bribes

IN an effort to polish the sullied image of Mexico's news media, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has ordered an end to government handouts to journalists.

Banning the chayote, a decades-old practice of paying a monthly bribe to reporters, columnists, and cartoonists, is the principal change in a set of new standards of conduct established by law for government agencies earlier this month.

"These are not isolated moves," says Gabriel Guerra, a presidential spokesman. "They are part of a pattern to modernize the relationship between the government and the media that began early in this administration with the end of the newsprint monopoly and the sale of government-owned media."

In September, President Salinas ordered a halt to the practice of paying the expenses of journalists who travel with him on official overseas trips. The latest guidelines include tighter accounting procedures for government press offices. For example, all checks must be made out to a specific name and these offices must now submit a monthly report of expenses. But the new rules do not stop the payment of advertising commissions (10 to 15 percent) to the reporters who cover government agencies that place regular ads.

The measures are being greeted with a mixture of hope and skepticism.

"It's an advance. A small one, but an advance," says Raymundo Riva Palacio, an editor for the business daily El Financiero.

"They're moving in the right direction," says Sergio Aguayo, president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights. "Basic to a democracy is an independent press, which can't happen without economic independence." But, he adds: "There's still a lot to do. It's a hugely corrupt system."

Mr. Riva concurs: "They're attacking the weakest link in the chain of corruption. If you want to get at the heart of the problem, you have to go after the subsidies paid to the media."

Government officials and political parties commonly pay for publicity and photos to appear in newspapers. The insertions appear to be regular news items, not paid advertisements. A front-page article can cost up to $30,000. During a political campaign last year, the relatively independent daily La Jornada confessed to accepting $10,000 to run two photos: one showing a candidate speaking to a large crowd, another of a candidate speaking to an almost empty street.

Business firms also pay the press: A Mexican businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, says he often pays "several thousand dollars" to have Televisa, a private television network with a 24-hour news channel, cover his conferences.

The government "subsidies" constitute more than half of the revenues of many newspapers. The new rules - which some analysts characterize as motivated by cost-cutting - also order government agencies to direct funds only to publications with "ample circulation and coverage."

Aguayo sees that as a loophole. "What is `ample'? There doesn't exist an independent audit of newspaper circulation here," he says.

If the government ministries steer funds only to publications with "ample circulation," Riva says that within a year and a half, "you will start to see newspapers disappearing. That will be the test to see if this is being followed."

Presidential spokesman Guerra explains that the guidelines do not specify circulation figures because target audiences vary. "It's perfectly acceptable for the Finance Ministry to place an ad in a financial paper rather than a mass-circulation paper," he says. "What we're trying to prevent is advertising placed in small publications out of friendship."

Riva, who did a case study of the Mexico City media last year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, is skeptical that the rules will be strictly applied. Efforts by past presidents to reduce media corruption have failed. "There are always shortcuts around the rules," he says.

Riva claims that the ban on financing journalists' trips abroad has already been violated. When Salinas flew to Austin, Texas, to meet then President-elect Bill Clinton on Jan. 8, he says, the Mexican government paid for the expenses of a small press pool.

Guerra admits that a press pool flew free on the president's plane, but doesn't see that as inconsistent with the rule against free international trips for the media. "They were treated as guests of the president. There was no stop overnight. They flew to Austin and came back the same day."

Riva says the introduction of the new rules now runs against the grain of political ambitions, thus creating pressure to break them. The informal presidential succession process is underway. Salinas's candidate will be known by the end of the year. Typically, middle- and upper-level government officials pay the media to raise the profile of their bosses or damage the reputation of competitors. Traditionally, Mexican politicians take large "families" of loyal workers from one ministry to another when the re's a change in office.

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