The “Mexico Initiative” PR Campaign Returns To Distort and Sanitize News Reports
By Erin Rosa
Last week, Mexican media companies cooked up an agreement to regulate the way journalists report on the drug war, proposing methods to restrict both images and speech in news broadcasts. Behind the accord is the Mexico Initiative, a massive public relations campaign that has been accused of using the media to try and stamp out public dissatisfaction and rebellion.
Televisa, the nation’s largest media corporation, created the Mexico Initiative in 2010 during the lead-up to the country’s bicentennial celebrations. Partnering with its main rival TV Azteca and dozens of radio stations, newspapers, and businesses, the initiative became a consortium of Mexico’s most powerful and wealthy information handlers. They combined their resources to launch a PR blitz of TV ads, radio spots, and billboard endorsements, encouraging Mexicans to “bury their complexes” and “evolve.” After disappearing when the bicentennial festivities ended, the Mexico Initiative has returned with the agreement, which some federal lawmakers are now proposing become law.
Editorial cartoon from Mexican artist El Fisgón in La Jornada. From left to right: “So we’re not going to be able to portray criminals as if they were heroes?” “Does that include ex-presidents, governors, police chiefs, and businessmen?”
On Thursday, the initiative’s backers held a press conference at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City to roll out the Mexico Initiative 2011 and ten-point accord (PDF) on media coverage of the drug war. It was broadcast on more than 450 stations throughout the country. “The Mexico Initiative can’t ignore the violence that accompanies us Mexicans on a daily basis in all areas of our lives,” said Sergio Sarmiento, a newspaper columnist and a presenter at the conference, when introducing the agreement. “Mexico is living in an unprecedented situation due to the levels and the ways that organized crime has used violence. This situation has strained the state’s ability to fight the groups that have made terror their modus operandi.”
The Mexico Initiative accord calls for creating mechanisms to regulate images and photographs that show “acts of violence,” including where, how, and how many times they are published. Journalists must “avoid language and terminology used by the criminals,” and never portray criminals or alleged criminals as “victims” or “heroes.” In order to protect journalists in dangerous areas, the initiative recommends that reporters not report live from “the most violent areas.” Reports that could jeopardize police or military operations against organized crime will not be published. The agreement doesn’t disclose exactly who will be deciding what is violent, what constitutes criminal terminology, and what type of content would be considered a national security threat.
President Felipe Calderón, the conservative head-of-state who declared war on drug trafficking groups when he began his term in 2006, issued his support for the declaration in a press release. Federal legislators with Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN in Spanish initials) applauded the move, while their rivals with the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the Senate said they would work to make the agreement into a law so that all media outlets would be forced adhere to it. In the United States there was no mention of the Mexico Initiative’s involvement with the agreement. The Mexico representative for the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists praised the accord as a “national breakthrough that could set professional standards well into the future.”
There were media outlets who refused to sign the agreement due to concerns over censorship, including La Jornada, a major left-leaning daily based in Mexico City; Proceso, a magazine that has criticized Calderón’s drug war; and Reforma, a large Mexico City daily that generally publishes articles favorable to the PAN. Despite the dissenters, industry analysts estimate that the Mexico Initiative represents 90 percent of the media industry in the country. The text of the agreement shows that Televisa and its partners are dead set on supporting the government’s policies, even as violence from the drug war continues to rise.
Denying the Reality of Everyday Life
Televisa’s agreement begins by noting that “fundamental liberties” like the “the ability to express oneself freely” and “freedom of the press” are being threatened by organized crime. The document then goes on to encourage its co-signers to come up with a strict criteria to censor news broadcasts and images, in order to produce reports that will “promote respect for the law.”
According to the logic of Mexico Initiative members, since violence from drug traffickers puts the lives of journalists at risk and is used to manipulate the media, a strategy needs to be devised to control what’s broadcast on the news. “Recently we have begun to exchange points of view among various media outlets to share experiences on this subject,” the agreement says. While the document briefly claims that the press has the right to criticize the government’s policies, it also states that the government is obligated to fight drug trafficking groups, which is an obligation that “can’t and mustn’t be compromised or negotiated.”
As long as a policing force’s actions are determined to be “within the law,” then it’s clear that any violence that occurs is the “product of a criminal group.” The term “within the law” is especially foggy considering the long lists of complaints of human rights abuses against the military and federal police forces, and the government’s inability to bring perpetrators of such crimes to justice. Right before Televisa announced the agreement, Mexican Supreme Court justices testified to the United Nations that the country’s National Human Rights Commission lacked the “legal teeth” to do its job.
Another rule in the agreement calls for the media to presume that police suspects are innocent until they are convicted or confess. In Mexico, there are countless cases of police torturing people to bring out a confession. There are many instances of law enforcement officials doctoring evidence to convict scapegoats. All of those things coupled with the reality of the drug war—bribery of court officials, police and soldiers working for drug trafficking groups—means that being convicted of a crime and confessing to it are poor indicators of an individual’s guilt.
The media outlets that adhere to the agreement will be in charge of figuring out ways to make sure reporters are following the rules. The accord also mentions the creation of a “citizen body” that will observe and make judgments on news reports to confirm that the agreement is followed. It is not clear who will be a member of the committee or how the members will be chosen. The accord states that more information will be made available on the body in the next thirty days.
To bring the public on board, Televisa has set up a page on the Mexico Initiative’s web site where people can add their name to an on-line petition in favor of the accord. (So far, 2,487 users have supposedly signed it.) The drug war is being waged, according to the document, while “knowing that a democratic life and the full enjoyment of fundamental liberties established by the constitution is only possible under the framework of the State.”
Transparency Woes and Criticism Mark Televisa Campaign
Before the Mexico Initiative was revealed to be an idea from Televisa, those staffing the project and the finances behind it were not disclosed. When the campaign was first brought to airwaves in 2010, its web site did not include an address or phone number. It was only after looking up who had registered the domain name to the web page that Narco News was able to determine that Televisa had created the site. “We have an advisory board made up of forty of the most important media outlets in the country, and each outlet is contributing resources, giving time and space in their studios. There really hasn’t been an expense,” said Mexico Initiative director Tania Esparza Oteo, in an exclusive interview.
Media moguls gathered June 2010 to announce the creation of the Mexico Initiative.
Photo: CNN México
At that time, Mexico was commemorating the bicentennial, celebrating both the country’s 1810 war for independence from Spain, and the 100 years since the 1910 revolution of Zapata and Villa. Both events involved the Mexican people rising up against their rulers. During the celebrations the Mexico Initiative began to release ads that would play approximately every 15 minutes on nearly every TV (including cable) and radio station in the country. “Mexico must bury its complexes and give birth to a Mexico of self-reliant men and women,” former Mexican soccer coach Javier Aguirre told viewers in one spot. In another one, actress Salma Hayek lectured that “A better nation is made of better individuals. It’s time to break out of our habits and evolve.” Both ads stoked harsh criticism from the public, especially over the fact that both celebrities were Mexicans who didn’t live in Mexico.
Along with trying to sway public opinion, the Mexico Initiative sponsors a TV show resembling “American Idol” that offers publicity to Mexicans who have ideas to “make the country a better place.” Viewers are urged to submit their proposals under five different categories, and a winner is chosen at the end of the show’s season. This year the show is returning, with a new category named the “law abiding” category. Televisa, the mastermind behind the show, is owned by Grupo Televisa, the second largest media corporation in Latin America.
With the new agreement on media coverage, the Mexico Initiative and Televisa have gone from actively trying to manipulate the public to censoring the reality of drug war violence from the public eye. It’s true that violence is surging in Mexico. Ever since Calderón declared war against drug trafficking organizations, 34,000 people have been killed, with 2010 being the deadliest year on record. Ever since Calderón called in the military and federal officials to police cities, complaints of extortion and law enforcement corruption have grown louder. As the drug war moves forward there are more shocking stories of brutality, more complaints of human rights abuses, and more bodies. The Mexico Initiative’s attempt to deny these realities won’t make the country “safer” or a “better place.” The violence and insecurity—along with the people’s indignation over it—won’t go away just because they pretend they don’t exist.