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Silver or lead? Mexican journalists beset by bribery and intimidation

March 21, 2014


¿Plomo o plata? Silver or lead? This is the dreaded question traditionally posed by drug cartels in a bid to coerce civilians and officials. The choice is simple: accept a payoff in return for bowing to the criminals’ demands; or refuse the offer and earn a bullet in the head.

This is the dilemma facing an increasing number of journalists in Mexico. Only now it appears the question is being posed not only by drug gangs, but also the Mexican government, which seems to have adopted a two-pronged strategy of bribery and intimidation.

The first 12 months of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s six-year term were the most violent for reporters since 2007, according to a new report by press-freedom watchdog Article 19. Moreover, public officials were allegedly responsible for 60 percent of the 330 documented acts of aggression against journalists and media outlets in Mexico in 2013.

The most dangerous area is the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, governed by Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Ten  journalists have been murdered in Veracruz on the watch of Governor Javier Duarte since the start of 2011.

The latest case was that of Gregorio Jimenez, a crime reporter for the Notisur and El Liberal newspapers, who was kidnapped on February 5. His body was found six days later, buried in a clandestine grave beside the corpse of Ernesto Ruiz Guillen, a union leader who had also been kidnapped in January.

Days before his death, Jimenez had written several articles about the union leader’s disappearance and the fact that the authorities had done little to investigate. Yet the Veracruz Attorney General’s Office quickly concluded that Jimenez had been killed not because of his work, but because of a personal dispute with a local bar owner.

The Mexican government has several agencies ostensibly dedicated to protecting journalists and human rights advocates, such as the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression. However, in eight years of existence, that office has failed to secure a single conviction, despite receiving an annual budget of over 30 million pesos (US$2.2 million), according to Dario Ramirez, Article 19’s director for Mexico and Central America.

Although 2013 was a particularly violent year for many Mexican journalists, it proved a very lucrative period for others. Records published by the federal government last month reveal that the PRI paid out tens of millions of pesos last year to dozens of reporters and TV and radio personalities – presumably in return for favorable coverage.

For example, the presenters of Televisa’s political and economic chat show Tercer Grado received a total of 9.12 million pesos (US$689,000), with prominent participants Carlos Loret de Mola and Joaquin Lopez-Doriga each receiving over 2,078,000 pesos (US$157,000).

The PRI used to strictly censor the press when it first ruled Mexico from 1939 until 2000, but this would be near impossible today given the greater plurality of media and the growth of social media. So instead it seems the government strategy is simply to buy good publicity.


Further evidence of this was unearthed shortly after Peña Nieto appeared on the front cover of TIME magazine in February, under the title “Saving Mexico.” The headline caused controversy in Mexico, where Peña Nieto has proven a divisive figure, and suspicions that he had paid for the publicity appeared to be confirmed by a government report which showed that the PRI paid Time Warner 576,000 pesos (US$43,000) in two instalments in October 2013. The report did not specify what the payments were for and TIME has not responded to the allegations, but how else could such payments be explained?

The coercion of Mexican journalists is deeply troubling as it undermines their ability to play a watchdog role and enhances the level of impunity presently enjoyed by corrupt officials and members of organized crime. While the government may not be posing the silver or lead question as explicitly or directly as the drug cartels do, it seems clear that reporters who tow the PRI line stand to profit, while dissenting voices can expect to be crushed.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2014 20:42

    Reblogged this on

  2. March 23, 2014 04:35

    Interesting post, Duncan. The apparent return of cash-for-stories is indeed disconcerting.

    But I would offer some clarifications:
    – The PRI (which came to power in 1929, not 1939) did not “strictly” censor the press during all those years; it did so occasionally, and that was enough. The bigger problem was self-censorship, both by publishers, who relied very much on government advertising, and by reporters, who in many if not most cases allowed themselves to be bought off.
    – This system of soft coercion didn’t disappear in 2000; it started to unravel in the early 1990s under President Salinas, who to his credit told government departments to stop bribing the press. The launch of Reforma in 1993 also helped, as it hired a new generation of reporters and paid them well enough that they were less susceptible to bribery.
    – The government’s payments to Time magazine last autumn were for a special advertising section, as Time Warner has clarified. (There’s been a lot of misinformation about this in the blogosphere.)
    – One could argue that, having taken the EPN regime’s money, the magazine repaid the favour with a fluff piece. But EPN doesn’t need to buy off U.S. media when they’re already happy to drink the Kool Aid. We saw the same thing under Salinas.

    Best regards. I’m enjoying your blog.

  3. March 23, 2014 15:21

    Hi Andrew. Thanks for your insightful clarifications regarding soft coercion and the Time payments. I’m glad your enjoying the blog. All the best.

  4. March 23, 2014 16:43

    You’re welcome, Duncan. By the way, a good source on the history of Mexican media (academic but pretty readable) is Chappell Lawson’s Building the Fourth Estate, University of California Press, 2002.

    I see you’re a Spurs fan. I’m a Gooner – yes, even after the agony of yesterday. Oh well, peace be among us in the tropics…

  5. March 23, 2014 19:15

    Thanks, I’ll try to track down a copy. Thinking of writing something more in depth on this. Haha I can certainly understand your agony. Can’t remember a season when Spurs and Arsenal have both been thrashed so many times!

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