Francisco Barrio, a former Chihuahua state governor who is Fox's auditor general, has acknowledged the scale of the problem. In a recent radio interview, he said that "90% to 95% [of government information] is closed, which means the population does not get to know what happens in these offices."
One proposal issued by the Mexican editors could undermine the interests of at least some media outlets. That proposal would require the government to disclose in detail all of its advertising spending, and to base that spending on clearly established criteria of circulation, specialization of the publication and relevance of the advertising in the promotion of culture and community service.
Government promotional advertising is so deeply ingrained in the national communication culture that no one seems to advocate stopping it altogether. Instead, there is a move to stop the abuse of this indirect form of subsidies, opening the spending to scrutiny and basing it on clear and fair rules.
If adopted and enforced, such a law would undermine the infamous tradition of government payouts to friendly media in the form of advertising.
A fierce battle in Sonora state illustrates one example. Legislators from the PAN in November got hold of checks worth $1.4 million paid over 10 months to a newspaper called El Independiente that, despite its name, is widely described as a mouthpiece of the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
In a relentless investigation of the case, the rival and genuinely independent El Imparcial newspaper noted that the subsidies surged just after the former owner of the Independiente was harassed into exile by the state government in 1999, allegedly so the paper could be taken over by PRI sympathizers and used to promote PRI candidates in last year's elections.
The rival paper noted that the subsidies paid to El Independiente during the period were higher than the budgets of 52 towns in the state.
If Mexico truly moved to a system in which government advertising was paid to media based on circulation and other clear criteria, the result could be like that in Spain after democracy returned in the 1970s--and two-thirds of the newspapers shut down.
Mexico City newsstands now offer readers the choice of more than a dozen local newspapers, many of them seemingly never bought by anyone.
Rock said the media support evolved with the founding of the PRI in 1929. "The system conceived of the media as an extension of the public administration, like in Russia. . . . It was not an issue of corruption but of culture. In Mexico, the system was prosperous for all."
The PRI wasn't the only culprit. Fox's PAN and the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party are also known to have used advertising judiciously, especially at the state level.
"All political parties here tend to be censors, tend to be very PRI-ish in terms of seeking control over the media," Rock said.
Even before a law on government advertising is passed, the executive and legislative branches have taken steps to end past abuses.
Last month, the Interior Ministry issued to all government departments guidelines covering advertising contracts. Congress also is moving to impose accountability for government advertising.
Heidi Storsberg, a federal deputy who heads the lower chamber's broadcasting committee, said that even before any transparency laws are passed, the budget would be revised this year to require close monitoring of the government's use of air time. Furthermore, all government departments will be required to provide details on advertising and other spending, she said. The amounts involved are huge: The total government communication budget last year was $360 million.
Corral, the senator, said: "In Mexico, access to data, to meetings, to archives, is secret. Only the exceptions are public. We want to reverse this, so that only the exceptions are secret."