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The World | COLUMN ONE

For Good Press, Slip 'Em Pesos

In Mexico, candidates and officials often pay hefty sums for positive news coverage. Much of the cash comes out of public funds.

August 30, 2004|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

ZACATECAS, Mexico — The local press was ignoring her state congressional campaign here, so Maria Dolores Mendivil started asking people in her party why. The answer shocked her. To get any attention, she'd have to fork over $1 million.

That's the going rate for a convenio, or deal, that candidates in many Mexican states pay to local media during the campaign season to get favorable stories -- and avoid unflattering ones.

"I would say to reporters in the cafes, 'You interviewed me -- why don't you publish anything?' They told me that the National Action Party candidates were banned, obviously because we hadn't paid," Mendivil said.

She was trounced in the July 4 elections here in the central state of Zacatecas, as were most other candidates on her National Action Party, or PAN, slate.

Mendivil, 39, a political neophyte who immigrated illegally to Texas as a teenager and returned home with dreams of making a difference in her native state, ran head-on into a reality that more seasoned politicians -- and sports stars, singers, businesspeople and other aspiring luminaries -- were only too aware of: Press coverage in Mexico often carries a price tag.

"I came thinking the press was open and free, something cleaner," Mendivil said. "But in reality it is very dirty."

In many ways, Mexican news media have come a long way since the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, began loosening its grip on most facets of Mexican life more than a decade ago. State-owned television and radio stations have been privatized, and newspapers have modernized. Some news outlets that were once government mouthpieces are now more independent, especially those in the northern border states.

Newspapers such as Zeta of Tijuana wage fearless campaigns against corruption in high places. Proceso magazine and Reforma newspaper, which serve nationwide audiences, say they enforce a strict code of ethics. Freedom of expression has improved, analysts agree, since the 2000 election of President Vicente Fox, who ran on a platform of transparency and change.

But candidates and government officials from Chihuahua and Veracruz states, from Oaxaca and Nuevo Leon, say that many old corrupt practices, such as the convenio, remain in place. They say they have no choice but to enter into the deals with owners of local media or watch their careers or candidacies suffer from negative news coverage or neglect.

Press experts say they know of no instance in which anyone has been prosecuted for paying convenios or receiving them. They add that convenios are much more rare -- but not unheard of -- in big-city media than in those of the outlying states.

On top of the convenios, which function rather like long-term contracts with media bosses, there are the chayotes -- one-time direct payments to reporters. Although much less common than 25 years ago, when reporters received cash-stuffed envelopes at Christmas and President Jose Lopez Portillo gave those covering him Rolex watches, chayotes are still very much in vogue in outlying states. The chayotes, whose name comes from the Spanish word for a tasty but spiny squash-like vegetable, can take the form of commissions for "publicity packages" that reporters sell to candidates or, in the case of Morelos state, even title to small parcels of land.

What many Mexicans don't realize is that much of the money paid to the media in the under-the-table deals comes out of public funds.

Such payouts, which come on top of legitimate advertising, ultimately hurt the Mexican economy by diverting resources from more productive enterprises. The arrangements also distort the political discourse in a number of ways, most obviously by keeping underfunded or overly scrupulous candidates from running.

"To run, candidates have to link themselves to people with resources. In no way does that contribute to democracy," said Francisco Lopez, the PAN candidate for Zacatecas governor who lost along with Mendivil.

The convenios are typically unwritten but quite specific in terms of what the politicians' money entitles them to -- so many stories and photos per week in newspapers and a fairly specific number of references on TV and radio programming. Just as important, the deals offer insurance against negative stories.

"The deals guarantee you favorable appearances on the local TV station or in the newspaper, all with a positive spin, of you visiting an old-folks home, or cutting a ribbon at a school for handicapped children, or denouncing the lack of public security," said a former federal congressman from Nuevo Leon state who asked not to be identified.

Politicians who don't pay up may find themselves mentioned in stories, often fictional, about officials who nap at public meetings, or car wrecks involving politicians' relatives that leave bystanders disabled. Weak Mexican libel laws give politicians and ordinary citizens little legal recourse to demand retraction of or compensation for such stories.

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