- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2001

MEXICO CITY Featured prominently in a Mexican newspaper, the doctored photograph shows a bruised and battered President Vicente Fox in boxing trunks being dragged from the ring by two aides.

"A truce wouldn't be so bad, would it?" the exhausted chief executive says.

A reference to recent spats Mr. Fox has had with rival politicians, the photograph is also a humorous commentary on how badly Mexican news media have battered the president in a barrage of satirical cartoons and unflattering commentaries since he took office on Dec. 1. At the same time, it's a reflection of big changes in Mexican journalism.

While criticism of leaders is commonplace in most advanced democracies, the phenomenon is relatively new in Mexico, which last year ended 71 years of one-party rule. For decades, most newspapers and broadcast stations operated in part as government propaganda machines.

Hints of freer and more critical news media began to emerge with democratic reforms instituted by the last two administrations of the long-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

"There was a very wide freedom of expression and a lot of freedom to attack political figures who had been protected before," said Guillermo Maynez Gil, a political analyst.

Mr. Fox's predecessor, President Ernesto Zedillo, was castigated by the media after the peso crisis of 1995, when interest rates soared to more than 100 percent and thousands of people defaulted on loans.

"Since Fox's election, this tendency has been sharpened a lot," Mr. Maynez said. "This newly regained freedom of expression has been exploited to the fullest. People are being extremely critical of the president from the left, from the right, from all trenches."

Mr. Fox asked for as much, promising his administration would eliminate "all practices that get in the way of informing the public openly and truthfully."

Reporters happily have taken up Mr. Fox on his pledge. Their new, no-holds-barred attitude brought ridicule of his fiscal reform proposals, which included a widely hated tax on food, medicine and books, and it fed merciless, scornful coverage of "Towelgate" the administration's purchase of $400 towels and $1,000 sheets for the presidential residence.

It wasn't always so. The PRI, whose control extended into the farthest corners of society, kept a firm lid on the media, both through relationships based on favors and through implicit threats.

The deal was that newspapers and television and radio stations not only would refrain from unfavorable coverage, but would actively support the party's political campaigns in exchange for government advertising a major source of revenue.

Poorly paid reporters, meanwhile, routinely supplemented their incomes with payoffs from government "sources."

For years, the government had the power to stop the presses. From its founding in 1935 until 1990, the state-owned company Pipsa had a monopoly on newsprint production and imports, meaning the PRI could muzzle any newspaper that offended party leaders. The government also had the power to revoke broadcast licenses on a whim.

The situation was widely known and accepted "I am a soldier of the president," Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, the late owner of Mexico's dominant television network, once said and made news when the tacit agreement was disobeyed.

When a publication that was receiving ample government advertising criticized President Jose Lopez Portillo, he was later quoted as saying, "I don't pay them to beat me up."

As recently as last year's presidential election, the autonomous national Electoral Institute, which monitored media coverage, found that many newspapers and broadcasters began tilting their coverage toward PRI candidate Francisco Labastida when polls started showing Mr. Fox ahead.

But Mr. Fox's surprise victory overturned the old traditions.

No longer assured of government favors or revenues, the media now scramble to earn the support of their readers and viewers, who are increasingly critical in today's more pluralistic, democratic society.

"They now have to write for the citizens, because they are the ones who will guarantee their survival," said Ernesto Villanueva, a media law professor at Mexico City's Iberoamerican University.

There are potential snags.

Notimex the state-run news agency that has served as a conduit for government propaganda for most of its 33-year history promises to convert "into a public, plural, open agency, without censorship."

But a large percentage of its reporters acquired their jobs through government connections or after being fired from other news media for corrupt behavior, said Daniel Moreno, who served as the agency's national news director from January to May.

In addition, Notimex receives 70 percent of its funds from the government a situation some in Congress are trying to change.

In broadcasting, radio and television stations still must operate under a law that allows the government to grant broadcast licenses at its discretion, rather than based on any professional standards. A proposal to change the law failed miserably during the PRI's reign, but is to be reconsidered in the next session of Congress.

Analysts worry about another challenge: whether the newly unrestrained media will be able to refrain from taking free speech to extremes.

Some newspapers have hired ombudsmen or dedicate a section to corrections and clarifications, a necessary move if they are to remain credible, said Mr. Maynez, the political analyst.

Once credibility is lost, he said, "it's very, very hard to regain it."

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