By Jan-Albert Hootsen (CPJ)
HAVANA TIMES – During his daily press conference on April 15, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told reporters, “If you go too far, you know what will happen.” López Obrador clarified his remarks the following day, saying he meant that the public would hold reporters who unfairly criticize the government to account. But in a country where journalists are murdered with impunity, his comments were criticized widely.
The remark was the latest incident in an uneasy relationship between the new federal government, which assumed office on December 1, and the press. Observers said in opinion pieces they believe this is due in part to López Obrador’s previous interactions with a press that has often been hostile to him, and also to a new approach to government communication. Journalists also pointed out that those who report critically on the president are often harassed online, most prominently by Twitter users.
Since assuming office, López Obrador has introduced a so-called “mañanera” or press briefing, held daily at 7 a.m. in Mexico City’s National Palace. The briefing has been praised by some. The columnist Ernesto Nuñez Albarrán wrote in Aristegui Noticias on April 14 that it was “healthy [López Obrador] appears every day; even if he complains about headers, news angles and coverage that he doesn’t like.”
However, Nuñez Albarrán added that the president has a deep distrust of some news outlets. During past administrations, when the leftist López Obrador was a mayor of Mexico City and principal voice of the political opposition, he was often framed by those in power as a “danger to Mexico.” It was a message repeated by media with close ties to the federal government.
López Obrador has attacked critical journalists and commentators for being “conservative,” “neo-liberal,” and “fifi” –meaning elitist or out-of-touch. He and some members of his cabinet have singled out several journalists and outlets, most prominently the Mexico City newspaper Reforma, which López Obrador has criticized more than a dozen times since taking office, according to Article 19.
Numerous journalists told CPJ they have been harassed online after being called out or criticized by the president. One of those, Reforma editorial director Juan Pardinas, told the Mexican chapter of press freedom group Article 19 that he has received online death threats and been doxxed. He said he believes that the threats were provoked by a news article on security at the president’s residence, that López Obrador criticized at his briefing.
Jesús Cantú, a spokesman for the presidency, told CPJ on May 1 that the federal government is committed to press freedom. “We reject any kind of violence, online or offline, against journalists and media,” he said.
CPJ spoke with several Mexican journalists and media observers about their view of López Obrador’s interactions with the press and whether they think his rhetoric could increase risks for journalists. Their answers have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Raymundo Riva Palacio, founder, Eje Central
The morning press conferences are used to defame journalists. I have received direct and indirect threats against me, including that people will publish contracts of government advertisements I allegedly received. There has been permanent online harassment and defamation against anyone who disagrees with the president. It’s a climate of hostility.
There is no good relationship at all between the press and the president. During the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto I was the target of constant harassment. There were attempts to install spyware on my mobile phone, there was an investigation into my private life, I was being followed, my email was hacked, and I was told that government advertisement contracts would be canceled if I didn’t stop criticizing the president. I always understood that to be the rules of the game, but I was never scared for my physical safety.
The climate of hostility and aggression against anyone who disagrees with López Obrador is unlike any I’ve seen in my professional career.
[Editor’s note: The Peña Nieto administration repeatedly denied allegations that it was spying on journalists, according to reports.]
Lucia Lagunes Huerta, director of press freedom group, Comunicación e Información de la Mujer A.C.
I believe the relationship between federal government and press is a bad one. The president harbors enormous prejudice about the job of the press. It’s very worrying when he generalizes in how he expresses himself every day, calling journalists part of the “mafia of power,” conservative, or corrupt.
To make matters worse, the labor conditions of journalists are very poor. The president needs to acknowledge that, so that journalists can do a better job. The violence against reporters is very serious, and to disqualify journalists so much is irresponsible. With the popularity he has, a discourse of hate is created that is seen on social networks. Journalists who ask critical questions during the morning press conferences are attacked by social media accounts, there are alarming expressions of hatred. The president is not dealing with what he is creating.
Témoris Grecko, freelance reporter and documentary filmmaker
I don’t cover the presidency right now, although I do plan to attend the morning press conference. I did receive some online abuse over comments I made about López Obrador, but it was light compared to some colleagues.
The president traditionally always kept himself at a distance, in terms of discourse he would always stay above everyone else, as if he were in the air. We’re not used to him descending into the ring, talking the media. What bothered me most was when he said that, if we’re not prudent, we’ll have to answer to the people. To me, that seems like an aggression, like a threat. The context is nevertheless important: a grumpy president is not the same thing as a president who takes reprisals. Let’s not forget how it was in 2017, when in just a few months a number of journalists were murdered, including Javier Valdez. [Valdez, the co-founder of Riodoce, was shot dead in May 2017.]
López Obrador is no fool. He is trying to activate his base through polarization. We shouldn’t fall in the provocation trap.
I believe that this polarization is meant to shift the press’s attention away from other, more pressing issues, such as government advertising, poor labor conditions, impunity. Although some media may benefit from it by selling more newspapers, in general we shouldn’t be playing the game the president wants us to play.
Rossana Reguillo Cruz, social scientist studying media and the government, at ITESO Jesuit University of Guadalajara
I am studying López Obrador’s communication model, his strategies on social networks and I am analyzing his discourse. I have received a lot of abuse because of critical comments of the president. I had to silence a number of [Twitter] accounts due to the level of aggression and constant harassment; from improper comments to disqualifications to jokes in bad taste.
López Obrador is very well-connected to the people. What profoundly worries me, however, is that the agenda of public debate is set in what is essentially a press conference. Journalists aren’t even allowed to question the president, because social media will immediately be upon them, ridicule them, discredit them. To me, the worst thing is that the president augments that disqualification by using terms like “fifi press” and “conservative” or “neoliberal” press. There’s a tendency to try to control the media.
In that sense, there’s a self-congratulatory tendency and rejection of the press. I’m not saying the coverage of the government is altogether flawless, but plurality is at risk. We, as citizens, are sufficiently mature to know which media to distrust. The president is infantilizing, he seems to only give credence to social media.
I’m in touch with groups of journalists from across the country, and what I’m seeing is that the president is making the figure of the journalist more fragile. He’s depicting them as the enemy, while he should be entertaining a discourse of harmony.
Luis Guillermo Hernández, freelance journalist
I believe that the president and the press are building a relationship that still needs to be structured. Perhaps López Obrador has not showed the conduct that is expected of a president, but it’s important to remember that it’s just discourse. [He] is the first president who has shown respect for media when it comes to what they can publish. Under Calderón and Peña Nieto, at this point in their respective presidencies, the pressure on media about what they could publish or broadcast was already building.
What worries me isn’t so much the virulence with which media are attacked online, but the virulence with which some media are attacking [the president]. Traditional media and citizens on social media are now operating on the same level, and I find it far more worrying how there’s a lack of dialogue between media and citizens on how to deal with the new government. That’s not something [the president] should be involved in. He has always been somewhat authoritarian, and never made a secret of it, but it’s nowhere near as bad as with previous governments.
[Reporting in Mexico City]