WHAT does freedom of the press mean in Mexico? Neither the government nor the media moguls in Mexico want to talk about it. Neither understands or admits to understanding the necessity of a free press to the functioning of a democracy. As Mexico approaches full partnership in free trade with the United States and Canada, there is no real guarantee of the public's right to hear all sides of political issues, so that informed choices can be made at the polls. Canada and the US may have fully discussed the ramifications of border and tariff changes, but the Mexican public has not.
In retrospect, freedom of political expression has never existed in modern Mexico. For decades, there have been practically no openly discussed political issues. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has been in power since 1929, is more than just the "ruling" political party. It has been virtually synonymous with the government itself. Without real political competition, how and why would freedom of the press become an issue at all?
Times are changing, but slowly. The financial crisis of the 1980s saw the rise of real political competition in some Mexican states, which culminated in the hotly contested 1988 federal election. It is creditably alleged that only election fraud kept the opposition left-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) from winning the presidency.
Moreover, the challenging parties had virtually no access to television, which is controlled by the PRI. During its decades in power the PRI has secured almost complete control over the rest of the media as well. This is done mainly through payments. Sometimes the process is sophisticated, but more often the payments are blatant gifts or cash given to underpaid reporters and editors, with the complete acquiescence of their employers. There has been a slight improvement: As of last month, by presidential order, government payments to the media are to be accounted for. But there has been no effort to restrain them.
THE newspapers themselves are sponsored not only by advertising, but also by government-paid articles. There are more than 20 daily newspapers in Mexico City. What looks like a vigorous press is actually heavily dependent on government money. It is doubtful that more than a handful would survive under a freely competitive system without government contributions. Thus indebted to the government for their existence, many papers are readily disposed to print the party line. The reason the government keeps a ll these newspapers going is so that no paper will become dominant.
Until last year, the government held the monopoly on the newsprint supply. Paper supplies could be cut off to a nonconforming publication. The paper supply has been privatized, but now if a newspaper becomes too critical, they are subject to repeated financial audits.
La Jornada, a daily known for its independence as an intellectual left-center newspaper underwent multiple audits last year until it partially buckled under by reducing its criticism. Consequently, it lost some of its best writers.
Worse than these pressures is self-censorship. Last November the only English-language daily, The News, clumsily fired a reporter for critical but accurate reporting. The owner of the paper, a staunch supporter of the PRI, was protecting his political friends. Fortunately, the firing was highly publicized. The Mexican government, trying to convince the US Congress of its commitment to a free press, was embarrassed, and it reduced its subsidy to the owner.
But self-censorship is most extreme in television journalism, from which nearly 90 percent of Mexicans get their news. The huge radio and TV conglomerate, Televisa (See box), which has an overwhelming audience share, is the worst offender. The bias in newscast editing is especially notorious. Televisa's boss, Emilio Azcarraga, claims that since he is running a private enterprise, he can support whichever candidates he chooses. It just so happens, however, that Televisa favors any nominee of the governing
PRI - to the extent that opposition candidates are rarely seen and never heard on any Televisa station.
For its complete loyalty to the PRI, the government allows Televisa to maintain and expand its vertical and horizontal hold on practically the entire Mexican entertainment industry. In addition, Televisa pays no Mexican taxes on its enormous income. In exchange for what would be owed, the government is given TV and radio time for "messages," which at times are indistinguishable from political commercials. The government has never addressed Televisa's unfair business practices or its evident abuse of the
public trust. There is an implied governmental position that it can not interfere in the conduct of private enterprise. Of course it does exactly this every day.
As the borders of Canada, the US, and Mexico become more porous, and as the policies and passions of free trade more tightly intermesh, the rights of all North American citizens should be equalized. Opposing abuses of freedom of expression is just as important as regulating businesses that contaminate the air we breathe. Televisa is just one example. But by denying free speech to opposing political groups, it pollutes the air as much as any smokestack.
Most important is the promise from Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari that his country is on the road to full democracy. Without the guarantee of the basic freedoms of speech and press that a democracy needs, Mexicans are hardly full partners in the politics and policies of the approaching years.