In Mexico, hunger strike highlights need for official advertising law
IPI urges Chihuahua government to end reported hostile behaviour against El Pueblo newspaper
By: Scott Griffen, Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean
VIENNA, Dec 10, 2013 – A Mexican editor’s ongoing hunger strike highlights the urgent need for the federal government to regulate the distribution of official advertising, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.
Ildefonso Chávez, editor of the Chihuahua-based El Pueblo began his strike on Dec. 2, alleging that the Chihuahua state government refuses to pay a bill for nearly a year’s worth of advertising space in the paper.
In a video uploaded to the paper’s website, Chávez accused Chihuahua Governor César Duarte of “seeking to paralyse” El Pueblo in response to critical coverage of the Duarte administration. In October, the paper began publishing a series of articles reporting on the state’s high debt levels. One article highlighted “spending excesses” said to have exacerbated the financial situation. These included the construction of a two-million-peso (€115,000) “mega balcony” at the governor’s mansion.
Chávez called on the government to end what he called a “blockade” against the paper, whose website was said to be inaccessible in universities and government offices. IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said that the use of state advertising as a tool for punishing or rewarding media houses has long been recognised as a serious threat to press freedom across Latin America and the Caribbean.
“In particular, for smaller media outlets for which public funds represent an important source of revenue, abuse of such funds may easily result in a choice between self-censorship or closure of the paper,” she explained. “Both of these outcomes prevent potentially valuable information from reaching the public.”
Mexico does not have a federal law regulating the distribution of public advertising – potentially leaving the door wide open for local and state officials in particular to practice what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has called “indirect censorship”.
A study released earlier this year by the Mexican NGO Fundar and Article 19 found that 27 of Mexico’s 32 federal administrative entities had together spent 4.5 billion pesos (€254 million) on official advertising in 2011. That sum, the two organisations warned, was being spent arbitrarily and in “total opaqueness”.
In response to that problem, the Pacto por México – an agreement on legislative priorities signed by the country’s three major political parties last year, prior to the inauguration of President Enrique Peña Nieto – foresees the enactment of public-advertising legislation by early 2014. Among other outcomes, the Pacto calls for the creation of an independent body to “supervise the contracting of media advertising at all levels of government”.
One year into the Peña Nieto presidency, however, media reports indicate that a bill to honour that commitment does not appear to be on the horizon.
Trionfi commented: “We urge the Mexican Congress to follow through on its stated goal of regulating government advertising at all levels. Ending discrimination in government advertising is not just a matter of fairness: it is also about making sure that powerful officials cannot use their office to suppress or manipulate information.
“In the meantime, the Chihuahua government should immediately honour any outstanding contractual payments to El Pueblo and cease any hostilities toward the paper and its editor.”
Mexico is not the only country in the region where state advertising is allocated on an arbitrary basis. For example, figures that IPI collected during an April 2013 press freedom mission to Guyana indicated that the Guyanese-state-owned Chronicle received 12 times the amount of official advertising that the independent Kaieteur News received, despite having – according to the most generous count – half the readership.