Mexico's Press Is Still Muted

Jesus Blancornelas' office was riddled with machine gun bullets in 1987. The following year, his partner was murdered. Most people would have made a career change about then.

Not Mr. Blancornelas. His graying hair and small frame suggest an accountant. But in fact he is a journalist known for taking on one of the world's most successful political machines - Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - as well as local bad guys, such as drug traffickers.

Blancornelas is the co-founder and co-editor of Zeta, a weekly that covers Tijuana and specializes in stories that other newspapers avoid. He is tough, tenacious, and dedicated to his trade.

Blancornelas was recently honored by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists for his willingness to cover the news despite obstacles. Earlier, he received a Pen Center USA West Freedom to Write Award for advancing press freedom.

Certainly Mexico's press situation is better than in past decades, but it is still a long way from acceptable. Some independent-minded journalists continue to have a hard time simply reporting the day's events.

Pressures tactics

At the state and local levels, press freedoms have been seriously affected in the last few months by pressure tactics and kidnapping threats. Sometimes the pressure comes from the government, other times from special interest groups.

Since the uprising of the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), a self-styled rebel group that seeks reform through terrorist tactics, the government has become suspicious of small-town newspapers that cover the rebels.

Under the banner of public security, law enforcement officials in Guerrero, Chiapas, and Oaxaca are taking a closer look at publications that do not toe the government line. Editors and publishers are complaining about a range of tactics, from tax audits to outright physical abuse of journalists.

This is an early alarm for officials and editors alike to avoid going back to the old days of intimidation and payoffs.

Limited progress

President Ernesto Zedillo has repeatedly called for freedom of expression. His head of internal politics, Secretary of Gobernacin Emilio Chuayffet, said that "criticism does not hurt the government."

The federal government has improved the dissemination of information to a degree. Press releases flow more freely than ever before from government agencies, yet information beyond these bulletins is hard to obtain.

At the federal level, at least, payoffs to reporters have fallen off. Nonetheless, many reporters still supplement their income by performing two functions: writing news and selling advertising space to sources. They know the limits of their coverage and the consequences of exceeding them.

Media figures who reject such unethical practices occasionally fall victim to other tough measures. The host of Mexico City's second-most popular morning radio talk show, for example, says he received "friendly" calls from government officials encouraging him not to interview opposition candidates prior to recent elections near the capital.

In this environment, it is easy to understand why Blancornelas has had a tough time practicing his trade.

*Michael J. Zamba is a US journalist working in Mexico.

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