Media freedom centre stage as Mexicans go to polls

As Mexican voters get ready to eelect their next president1 July , all four candidates have made statements in support of free expression and the protection of journalists. In the last five years, 44 Mexican journalists have been killed,  most of them in the provinces.

During a June meeting with farming groups in the state of Veracruz, one of the most deadly provincial areas for journalists, Enrique Peña Nieto, the frontrunner candidate for the former ruling party Partido  Revolucionario  Institucional, (PRI) offered a one minute silence in memory of the nine journalists killed in that state in the last few months. Organised crime would not  “force Mexicans to stop expressing their freedom of expression in terms of ideas; this is the pillar and strenght of our democracy,” said Peña Nieto.

Manuel Lopez Obrador, candidate for the leftist Partido de Revolucion Democratica (PRD), has also said that individual, religious, political freedoms and freedom of expression would be the most important rights his government would respect if he won the elections.  And Josefina Vasquez Mota, the candidate for the ruling Partido Accion Nacional also hitched her wagon on freedom of expression. “When the right to freedom of expression is gone, we lose all our other freedoms,” during International Day for Freedom of Expression.  Gabriel Quadri of the smaller Nueva Alianza party also endorsed better security for journalists.

This is good news.  It took several years to reform the legal infrastructure to prosecute crimes against journalists.  A new law that makes the murder of a newsperson a federal crime was recently approved, but many problems remain to make it work, including establishing a new legal infrastructure and incorporating new language in the penal code.

However, for the last few months of the campaign, the elephant in the room has been the mistrust that exists among sectors of the population which feel the media manipulates the information they get, especially at election time — a mistrust that goes back to the 70 years the PRI was in power, and was believed to have fixed elections with the help of the news media.  The YoSoy132 university student movement, which was launchedin May, struck a chord when it protested against television monopolies.  While cable television offers a variety of options, non cable subscribers can only see  two companies, Televisa and Television Azteca. This is difficult in a country where 80 percent get their news from television.

The Guardian also drove the point home, when it published a story based on leaked documents that sought to prove that Televisa had received multi-million dollar payments to promote the image of the PRI´s candidate Peña Nieto.  The documents had been first mentioned in an earlier story in 2006, and their veracity was downplayed by some media in Mexico.

Amedi,  civil society organization that promotes media plurality, suggests that whoever wins the 1 July presidential election should push for two more national open channels at least, and better policies to promote digital television.

Students unite under Yo Soy 132 banner

A youth revolution has been brewing in Mexico in the last month.

Known as the Yo Soy 132 movement (I am 132), the phenomenon is made up of university students who until a few months ago were a sleeping giant: most planned to vote in blank, or to stay away from the ballot boxes on 1 July elections.

It all changed on 11 May — the day candidate Enrique Peña Nieto of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), and the favourite to win in July, visited the campus of Universidad Iberoamericana, an upper-class university in Mexico City.  At that rally Peña Nieto answered questions and spoke to students allowed to enter a meeting hall.  But at he exited at the end of his presentation, he was pinned against a wall by a large group of student protesters who challenged him.

The candidate’s handlers were so rattled they issued a statement saying the students were “brought in” as professional protesters hired by forces that dislike the PRI. Enraged by the remarks, the students created a video titled “YoSoy131”, which launched the political movement. In it each of the 131 individual students who had taken part in the protest identified themselves with their university cards, proving they existed and were not fake. Since then, 74 universities around the country including private and public campuses have joined the movement, which has remained non-partisan, although it has allowed other more politicised citizen movements to join their group. The name change to Yo Soy 132 reflects the addition of the later activists.

The youth movement has injected doubts into the certainty the PRI will win the presidential elections next July. Recent polls showed the two other contenders closing in on the PRI candidate.

Since 2000, Mexico has been governed by a centre rightist party, the Partido de Accion Nacional.  In 2006, Felipe Calderon took office under heavy dissent, as he beat left of centre candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with a single digit percentage. Obrador and his party refused to accept defeat, holding work stoppages that threaten the country’s stability.  Eventually, Obrador went quiet but continued to call himself the legitimate president.

The drug war launched by President Calderon since he took office in 2006 and bad economic times have depleted any support for PAN, sinking the possibility that they could return to power.

The PRI ruled Mexico for 70 years in a one-party system that was wrought with corruption and cronyism. The youth movement has energised an otherwise stilted political process.  Nobody know what will happen, but the youth have responded.