President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration has spent millions of dollars on advertising, creating what many Mexican media owners, execs and journalists call a presidential branding juggernaut capable of suppressing articles, directing front pages and intimidating newsrooms.

Share story

MEXICO CITY — Running a newspaper, radio station or television outlet in Mexico usually means relying on a single, powerful client that spends exorbitant sums on advertising with a simple warning: “I do not pay you to criticize me.”

That client is the government of Mexico.

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year in government money on advertising, creating what many Mexican media owners, executives and journalists call a presidential branding juggernaut capable of suppressing investigative articles, directing front pages and intimidating newsrooms that challenge it.

Despite vowing to regulate government publicity, Peña Nieto has spent more money on media advertising than any president in Mexico’s history — nearly $2 billion in the past five years, according to government data compiled by Fundar, a transparency group. It found that his administration spent more than twice the generous media budget Mexican lawmakers allotted it for 2016 alone.

And that is just the federal money.

Leaders from all parties marshal hundreds of millions of dollars in state money for advertising each year, money they dole out to favored news outlets, Fundar calculated. According to the executives and editors involved in the negotiations, government press secretaries openly demand positive coverage from news organizations before signing an advertising contract.

The result is a media landscape across Mexico in which federal and state officials routinely dictate the news, telling outlets what they should — and should not — report, according to dozens of interviews with executives, editors and reporters. Hard-hitting stories are often softened, squashed or put off indefinitely, if they get reported at all. Two-thirds of Mexican journalists admit to censoring themselves.

“If a professional reporter wants to cover the dirty elements of what is happening in the country today, neither the government nor private companies will give them a penny,” said Enrique Krauze, a historian who edits Letras Libres, a Mexican magazine that receives government money. “This is one of the biggest flaws in Mexican democracy.”

Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, also known as the PRI, pioneered this system during its 70 years in power.

But the government’s influence over the media goes well beyond the advertising spigot, with officials sometimes resorting to outright bribery. In Chihuahua, the former governor spent more than $50 million on publicity, officials say, in a state saddled with huge public debts.

Prosecutors have also collected signed receipts for bribes to local journalists — payoffs so common that some reporters were even listed as government contractors, documents show.

“The relation between the media and power is one of the gravest problems in Mexico,” said Javier Corral, the new governor of Chihuahua.

The extraordinary advertising spending comes at a time when the Mexican government is cutting budgets across the board, including for health, education and social services. The federal government spent as much on advertising last year, about $500 million, as it did to support students in its main scholarship program for public universities.

The co-opting of the news media is more fundamental than any one administration’s spending on self-promotion, historians say. It reflects the absence of the basic pact that a free press has with its readers in a democracy, where holding the powerful accountable is part of its mission.

“It’s a common problem in the developing world, but the problem is much, much graver in Mexico,” said David Kaye, U.N. special representative for freedom of expression. “It’s remarkable what the government spends.”

Many media owners and directors say they have so few independent sources of income outside the government that they face a stark choice: wither from a lack of resources, or survive as accomplices to their own manipulation.

“Of course, the use of public money limits freedom of expression, but without this public money there would be no media in Mexico at all,” said Marco Levario, director of the magazine Etcétera. “We are all complicit in this.”

The nation’s Supreme Court recently took up the issue of official advertising, ruling in November that the government must act on the president’s promise to regulate the flow of public money in an unbiased way.

“The absence of regulation in official publicity allows for the arbitrary use of communications budgets, which restricts indirectly freedom of expression,” said Arturo Zaldívar, a Supreme Court justice.

In a statement, the president’s office referred to its official advertising as a form of constitutionally backed publicity that enables it to inform and educate the public about its work. But it rejects the assertion that such spending skews the media’s coverage of important issues or stifles free speech in any way.

“Every day journalists in Mexico question, with absolute freedom, the government’s actions and those of our representatives, including the president,” it said.

Shortly after his election, Peña Nieto’s team came up with a plan to regulate media spending, according to three people familiar with the proposal.

But Aurelio Nuño, the president’s former chief of staff, said the effort never got far enough to produce a draft of any legislation that could yield action.

Daniel Moreno, director of the digital publication Animal Político, says he receives almost nothing from the federal government, and relatively small amounts from state governors.

It is not because he doesn’t want the money, Moreno says. It is just that the kind of critical coverage his news team does is not rewarded with government contracts, he contends.

Recently, Moreno said he received a call from officials in the state of Morelos, which spends about $3,000 a month with him on advertising. The governor’s wife was going through a rough period over claims that she was politicizing aid for earthquake victims — an accusation she rejected — so a state official suggested that Animal Político do a few positive stories on her.

Moreno politely declined.

“They were pretty offended,” he said with a shrug. “And I’m pretty sure that money is gone.”

As a policy, Animal Político publishes a banner on pieces that are paid advertising, so readers know the work is not independent journalism, he said.

But officials in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Sonora have refused to pay for content unless it is published without the banner, he said. Moreno refused.

“I’ve lost more money than I’ve earned that way,” he laughed.