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When Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took office last December, he began a tradition that seemed like a windfall for journalists: livestreamed daily press conferences. Early each morning, the leftist president spends an hour answering questions and sharing his thoughts – a level of access unimaginable under previous Mexican administrations.
But the president, who spoke of press freedom on the campaign trail, has also used those pressers to discredit critical reporters and publications. And at a time of increasing polarization, some of his supporters are quick to intensify an attack online, echoing language at the press conference, where journalists have been dismissed as fifí – elite – or conservative.
Maybe this all sounds familiar, part of the growing global pattern of populist leaders demonizing the free press. But in Mexico, analysts say, the situation is particularly high-stakes. For more than a decade, it’s been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Six journalists have been killed in the past six months alone.
“This government is trying to figure out a way to both control the narrative and keep critical media at bay, while trying not to cross the line where they can be blamed for direct violence,” says Jan-Albert Hootsen of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Mexico has been on track for an unwelcome press freedom record since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office last December: six journalists slain in the same number of months.
For more than a decade, the country has been one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism, thanks to high levels of violence and impunity, combined with weak institutions.
But over the past several months, reporters and analysts say, a new kind of threat has emerged. In part, it fits a broader trend of populist leaders from the United States to Italy to Brazil demonizing the media and galvanizing a fervent base online. But the history of violence against journalists here, and the complex relationships between politics, organized crime, and censorship, make it particularly dangerous in Mexico.
Mr. López Obrador, who spoke of the importance of press freedom on the campaign trail, has broken new ground by holding daily early-morning press conferences, giving reporters a level of presidential access unimaginable under past administrations. But he’s also used the livestreamed pressers as a platform to discredit journalists and news outlets that criticize him. There are casual jabs, like dismissing critical journalists as “fifí” (elite), conservative (he rose to power on a leftist wave of support), or puppets. His comments can enter more threatening terrain, however. During an April press conference, he bristled at a question about the country’s rising murder rate, responding, “If you cross the line, well, you know what happens, right? But it’s not me, it’s the people.”
Reporters sympathetic to his ideas have been praised, while critics have fallen prey to more serious repercussions from the president’s base. The editor of Reforma, a top daily newspaper, received death threats after being chided by the president for publishing a story that included his home address, which was already in the public domain. A national columnist, Ivonne Melgar, was buried by a siege of pro-government Twitter bots echoing the president’s language after she questioned him – and then again, after she commented on the attack.
“He is very popular and very loved with a huge social base of support, which makes his words really powerful,” says Ms. Melgar. “If he says to his followers that those who ask difficult questions [are] sellouts or conservatives or some other label, the social damage is really serious. It makes you doubly vulnerable in this field of work.”
Mornings with AMLO
According to press freedom groups, upward of 100 reporters and editors have been killed in Mexico since 2000. It falls toward the bottom of the most recent World Press Freedom Index, ranking 144 out of 180 countries.
Past leaders have paid lip service to the need for better protection of journalists. And there have been important steps in recent years, like the creation of a national Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in 2012. But multiple journalists supposedly protected by it have shown up dead – including Francisco Romero, who was shot last week – and funding is often in question.
Yet the regular, hourlong press conferences hosted by AMLO, as the president is commonly known, are considered a small bright spot.
“The fact that the president gives a press conference every morning is absolutely extraordinary and unprecedented across Latin America,” says Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a dream of any journalist to have direct access to the president every day and to ask whatever you want.”
Other regional leaders who regularly broadcast their policies or musings to the public, like former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on his program “Aló Presidente,” were not likely to take questions from or engage in conversations with the press, Mr. Alves adds. Although AMLO skirts certain questions, the daily event is groundbreaking.
But in a rapidly changing media atmosphere, the impact of broadcast press conferences is changing, too, he explains, citing factors like social media, new media business models, journalism layoffs, and increasing violence against reporters. For decades, Mexican media have relied almost exclusively on government advertising for revenue. At the local level, in particular, that can result in self-censorship, or encouragement to drop critical stories. The tight relationship some papers have historically been perceived to have with previous administrations has left some AMLO supporters suspicious.
The mañaneras, as the press conferences are called, have also allowed AMLO to dominate the media message, or even bypass the media entirely. Their official YouTube channel sometimes has 50,000 people tuning in, and they’re streamed on other services like Periscope as well. Viewers flood the streaming platforms with comments ranging from declarations of love for the president to mocking reporters’ dress, makeup, or speech.
“AMLO has a large, fanatical following online and when he tries to call out an outlet or journalist, which he’s done on numerous occasions, his following will coordinate attacks on those outlets or individuals, which results in huge amounts of harassment,” says Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
After his initial criticism of Reforma, and the ensuing death threats, AMLO announced he’d offered its editor protection. The media will be “untouchable,” he vowed during the mañanera on April 26, saying, “We are not going to use the state to threaten, to intimidate, much less to suppress” the press.
But the administration needs to make good on its promise, Mr. Hootsen says. “This government is trying to figure out a way to both control the narrative and keep critical media at bay, while trying not to cross the line where they can be blamed for direct violence. It’s a risky and dangerous strategy.”
‘A new reality’
Ms. Melgar says she wasn’t scared when she noticed her Twitter account overwhelmed by hateful tweets earlier this year.
“I wasn’t afraid. It made me conscious that we are now working under a new model,” she says. She’s worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, covering two former administrations. Journalists now have to “prepare themselves for a new reality” where orchestrated online attacks are a regular feature, she says.
Social media attacks on journalists have grown since AMLO took office, according to a February report from ITESO university in Guadalajara. Twitter accounts run by bots, or software that controls an account’s actions, magnify the president’s anti-media commentary via retweets and insulting hashtags. (In another morning press conference, the president said the government does not use bots.)
Polarization has played a part in the uptick in attacks, the ITESO study noted. As opinions on government or policy move toward the extremes, with the first election of a leftist president in decades, it’s become more challenging “to construct the conditions for dialogue,” the report states.
Ms. Melgar hasn’t seen journalists able to find creative ways around the online attacks yet. But she does see a small silver lining.
The online attacks “are raising an alarm” and encouraging more critical thinking, she says. And in the past few weeks, as AMLO’s treatment of the media gained international attention, she’s had the impression he is dialing back some of his criticism. She hopes he continues to mind his words.
“The fact that the government criticizes the press in a climate where the lives of journalists are already in danger – it’s a form of revictimization. It devalues our work and puts a [new] kind of target on our heads.”