A wrench in the "ruling party machine"

One frustrated journalist in Mexico City speaks out about the censorship imposed by his publisher's quid pro quo relationship with the PRI.

By Fiona Morgan

Published June 28, 2000 11:00AM (EDT)

The world is watching Mexico this week, waiting to see if the world's longest-ruling political party will finally lose its grip on power. The July 2 election presents the stiffest challenge to Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in its 71 years of uninterrupted rule. Polls show PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida in a dead heat with National Action Party (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox.

The PRI is known for its colorfully coercive approaches to campaigning -- everything from giving away washing machines, to giving less relief money to disaster victims who support the opposition, to threatening welfare mothers and corn farmers that their aid will be cut off unless they pledge to vote for Labastida.

When journalist Josh Tuynman got word from his publisher that he was barred from any coverage of Fox, he decided enough was enough. Tuynman, then national editor of Mexico City's English-language daily the News, went public with the paper's censorship policy and handed in his resignation. The News is the largest English-language daily in Latin America and is published by the O'Farrill family, which also owns auto companies. Like most major businesses in Mexico, O'Farrill has longtime affiliations with the PRI.

Romulo O'Farrill has denied the prohibition on covering Fox, and told the Associated Press that Tuynman had demonstrated a "bias" in favor of Fox and was asked not to run stories without consulting his bosses. Meanwhile, the News has run no coverage of Fox since the alleged order.

Tuynman, an American who moved from his native California in 1999 to take his first reporting job with the News, said his decision to speak out arose both from ethical concerns and frustration. But he says the sticky position he found himself in wasn't unique. Salon spoke with Tuynman last week by phone from his home in Mexico City.

Did the publisher of the News tell you that you were actually banned from writing about any candidate other than Francisco Labastida?

Specifically, we are banned from writing about Vicente Fox, because the other candidates really don't matter. There's one third-party candidate, but in general the PRI knows that the more votes the third party gets, the fewer votes there are for Fox who is the real opponent to the ruling party.

When were you told about the ban?

That came Wednesday, June 14.

But in general this is something that's been going on for a while?

Absolutely. Ever since I started in the national section in August. The presidential primary was going on, and even back then we were prohibited from running photos of anyone but the main candidate, Labastida, who won the primary. As long as I've been there, we have been forbidden to run photos of the other presidential candidates.

How do they tell you this? Is it something that comes up in meetings or is it just something everybody already knows?

By the time I arrived, the ban was already in place. I was told that that was something that everyone knew, that we were to tread very lightly, if at all, on the PRI. And that we had free rein to attack the opposition. Stories about the opposition were to be played down; stories about Labastida were to be played up.

The most recent ban, on the 14th, it was an order that was passed down through the publisher to his assistants to the news editor, then to me, that we were not to run stories about Fox.

What was the reaction among your peers there?

For at least the managing editors and the editor in chief of the News, this was just one more step ... because it wasn't a surprise, and because we had already been doing some pretty unethical things and made our peace with it. Everyone is just trying to hang on until July 3, after the elections, when someone will win and then we won't have to do campaign coverage anymore and then we won't be censored on campaign coverage.

Are you censored on other things?

We are told not to run stories about gays, anything that can be interpreted as pro-abortion. For a long time, there was a ban on reporting on the Zapatista rebels, although we have reported on that in general recently. Those are the main things -- and no attacks on the Catholic Church.

And what about the university protests?

Back in 1988 there was another university protest and they were censored. At that time, the editor in chief, Peter Hamil, resigned.

What was your reaction to the latest ban, because you obviously took a different step than your peers?

I was put in the toughest position of anyone. The managing editors have an entire paper to consider, and by and large with finance and living, world news, etc., there isn't much censorship. For my reporters, as long as they stay away from political topics, they're fine as well. But it really came down to me and my section to basically enforce this censorship and change what I consider to be news based upon the desires of the publisher.

Then what did you do? Did you call Reuters?

I have friends who are at the wire services. So the news got out very quickly. More or less, I was the one who called Reuters.

You say that the publisher of the newspaper you work for has had a long relationship with the ruling party. Can you describe that?

We're more or less part of the ruling party machine. Basically until about 10 years ago, the vast majority of business going on in Mexico was through the ruling party. The state owns the oil industry, the telephone industry, roads, everything, so in order to get contracts to do business you had to work with the government. And because the government was basically indistinguishable from the party, the PRI has held the federal government now for 70 years; it's been, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. You give me a contract, I'll give you good coverage.

So this censorship isn't an isolated incident. Is this part of the general culture of journalism in Mexico?

What goes on at the publisher's Spanish newspaper [Novedades] is that they have a lot of experienced journalists who have grown up under this system. They know what to write and what not to write. So they have not been censored in the way that we have, because they understand that Labastida is to be lauded and Fox is to be trashed. Therefore, the publishers trust them to do that. Whereas, at least the way I see it, we as foreign journalists are not trusted.

Because you're not used to having to censor what you write.


What other ways does that arrangement show up in the day-to-day operations of the paper?

In our paper, it just so happens that the publishers are good friends with the health secretary. So we end up running stories about what's going on with the health secretary -- signing something against tobacco or things like that, that we would never cover otherwise. But we end up running a photo of the health secretary and what he did that day. These are all things that are done on direct orders by the publishers.

How do other foreign journalists feel about this situation? Coming from the U.S., is it disappointing to have to deal with?

As far as publishing in English, we are the only censored media outlet. The wires and other English publications out here aren't censored. Within the News, one of the managing editors has about 15 years experience working in the States and he says the same things happen in the States. Maybe not as egregiously, but the publishers have their points of view and will kill stories or modify stories based on what they want to see in their newspaper. So he's made his peace that way. My assistant is resigning along with me, because she's concerned about her reputation.

There are a number of -- well, I wouldn't say objective papers, but papers that have more or less the point of view of the left-wing opposition or the right-wing opposition. Definitely they are free to attack and expose the government and they do so on a daily basis. As far as radio and television, they're a little bit more old school. The TV broadcasters are very pointed in giving equal time to all candidates, but at the same time, in their own reporting, they have been shown to be biased in favor of the ruling party. But it's nothing like it was 10 or even five years ago.

So it's improved?

It's improved greatly. In 1988 it was something like 2 percent of media coverage went to the opposition, 98 to the ruling party, and now it's closer to about 50 percent of coverage for the ruling party and 30 percent the main opposition candidate -- in broadcasting.

What made the difference?

1988 was really the big break in the ruling party, when they finally had a strong challenge in the elections. Since then they've had a lot of international and domestic pressure to open up and have fair elections.

Were you ever threatened for talking about the censorship at the News? Did you ever feel like you were in danger?

No. No physical threat. I was threatened with being fired as soon as the press ran my story. However, my editor backed down on that threat so I resigned June 20.

If anything, I think I threaten them more than they can threaten me. Most of the staff, including me, was working without paying taxes until this week. A reporter who still works there told me that two days after I resigned, the staff was told they were all going to start paying their taxes and receive their working papers before the election. Employing people who only have tourist visas has been standard operating procedure at the News for years, as a tax dodge for both the O'Farrills and their foreign employees.

So, I take this to mean I have spooked the publishers and they are covering their asses. Any real threats they make against me could only backfire, considering the press attention Mexico is getting with elections only five days away.

What are you going to do now?

I'm going to stay in Mexico City as a freelance writer and see where that takes me.

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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