With a month to go until the presidential election, Mexicans switching on their televisions and radios can hardly avoid the candidates vying to win their votes on July 1st. In a country with more televisions than refrigerators, dominating the airwaves is crucial to being elected. But ownership of the broadcast media is highly concentrated. Most people get their news through free-to-air television, a duopoly shared by Televisa and TV Azteca. Televisa, with about 70% of the audience, is forever associated in the public mind with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000. In 1990 the network’s chief commented that it was “a soldier of the PRI”. Many suspect that the media are still for hire: Reforma, a newspaper, published receipts last month suggesting that Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI’s presidential candidate, during his six years as governor of Mexico state spent about $3m for journalistic “mentions” as well as $90m on public information. Mr Peña says the payments were all for legitimate publicity.
The media’s past subordination to the state has faded since democracy arrived. Power used to be centralised in the presidency. Now state governments, businesses and civic groups all compete with the federal government for news coverage. “Before, the media needed the official sources more than they [the sources] needed the media. Now, it is the other way round,” says José Carreño, who worked as press secretary to Carlos Salinas, the president from 1988 to 1994.
The politicians have tried to curb the media’s influence. Under new rules approved in 2008, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) determines whether interviews are “genuine” journalism, rather than paid-for advertorials. In one case a candidate was prosecuted for an interview given while attending a football match during the campaign (the charge was quashed on appeal). Only IFE may organise candidate debates; newspapers have been fined for doing so. To the fury of broadcasters, political spots are now rationed. That is intended to prevent a repeat of the relentless campaign by a business group in 2006 which described Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-wing candidate then and now, as “a danger to Mexico”.