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Media : Mexico Tries to Rein In Payoffs to Journalists : Many reporters rely on regular embute payments from agencies they cover. New rules would curb the practice.

February 09, 1993|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Like the proverbial husband who proclaims he has stopped beating his wife, the Mexican government has called for a halt to official corruption of the news media without actually confessing to the crime.

By issuing new guidelines for its relationship with the press, the government has taken an important first step in recognizing a decades-old problem of bribes and payoffs to the media, political observers and independent journalists say.

Yet many are skeptical about official intentions to follow through with the reforms, and others say the new rules don't go far enough.

In December, spokesmen for President Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced an end to the government's longstanding practice of paying the expenses of journalists who accompany the president on trips abroad. Officials say they plan soon to make reporters pay their own way on national trips too.

Also, the 1993 budgets of government press or "social communication" offices were cut by about 50%, in part to stop the common practice of paying journalists. Many low-paid reporters accept what is known as the embute or package--under-the-table payment from the officials or agencies that they cover.

The government did not explicitly ban the giving or receiving of such payments but instead said that any payment by a government official to a reporter or newspaper must be made by check in exchange for a receipt that explains what services were rendered. The payments must be declared as income.

In theory, this will stop illicit payments. While many reporters readily accept bribes to augment their income, few are presumably willing to leave a written record of having done so. Some of Mexico's most experienced reporters earn close to $1,800 a month, but base salary for reporters is about $425 a month; most earn something in between.

"In principle, these are changes that should have happened a long time ago and that will bring the press-state relationship up to date," said historian Lorenzo Meyer, a columnist for the Excelsior newspaper. "But I'm not sure they're real. Between the government's discourse and action, there has always been a gulf."

El Financiero columnist Miguel Angel Granados Chapa is even more doubtful.

"These are epidermal answers to a deeper problem. It is good if the payments to reporters stop, but that is not the most important part of the sick relationship. There is still the relationship between the owners of the media and the government, their dependence on government advertising, their shared political and economic interests," Granados Chapa said.

He added that many reporters will continue to serve as advertising agents for their newspapers, selling ads to the agencies they cover for a commission. Many of those paid ads appear as if they were news stories, often on the front page.

"The reporters make a lot more money in advertising than in embutes ," he said.

The Mexican government, in the hands of the Institutional Revolutionary Party for more than 60 years, has long viewed control of the media as an important element in the country's political stability. The payment of reporters' travel expenses plus a cash "allowance" reportedly became commonplace under President Miguel Aleman in the 1940s.

The media were largely obedient until 1968 when, under the direction of Julio Sherer Garcia, Excelsior broke ranks and reported the army's massacre of student demonstrators at Tlaltelolco Plaza on the eve of the Mexico City Summer Olympics.

In the early 1970s, Sherer was critical of President Luis Echeverria Alvarez, who eventually orchestrated the journalist's ouster from the paper. Sherer founded the weekly newsmagazine Proceso that today leads a still small but growing corps of newspapers and magazines breaking away from government control.

In Mexico City, that corps includes the dailies El Financiero and La Jornada, the weeklies Mira and Este Pais. Now, in a move sure to shake up Mexican journalism even more, the independent Monterrey newspaper, El Norte, has announced a partnership with Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, to start up a new Mexico City daily. Some political observers believe the government's new media guidelines are an effort to get in front of a change that is inevitable and claim credit for democratic reforms. They say the government is spending a lot of money to control a few papers, while others print what they want.

Others journalists and observers say Salinas is attempting cosmetic changes to improve the public's opinion of the press and enhance the legitimacy of what is printed in newspapers before the next presidential campaign, which will begins at year's end. They note that the restrictions on government press officers do not apply to the ruling party, called PRI, which reportedly spends liberally on advertising, press trips and payoffs during campaigns.

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