Written by Katharina Dorn

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  • Area: 1.964.375 square kilometres
  • Population: approx. 120 Mio.
  • Capital: Mexico City
  • State form: federal republic
  • Official language: Spanish
  • Religion: Christian (81 per cent, 2014)

  • Flag of Mexico

    Mexico is known as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, more than 80 journalists were killed since 2000 – many cases being unresolved. A lot of these journalists wrote about the Mexican drug cartels, corruption and the collaboration between politics and organized crime. As a consequence, journalists often avoid discussing sensitive information – self-censorship has become commonplace in the land of drug cartels. Ownership concentration, especially in the broadcasting sector is fairly high, also liBmiting press freedom. Many journalists are badly paid and therefore vulnerable to corruption. In 2015, Reporters without Borders ranked Mexico on the 149th place out of 180 countries. In its annual Freedom of the Press report in 2015, the Freedom House Foundation scores it 63 of 100, rating it “not free”. Besides the strong influence of organized crime, high market concentration and bad working conditions, journalism in Mexico is also heavily affected by strong long-term relations with the government. Because of a weak public media market, low diversity due to high media concentration and a rather indirect influence of politics (via close ties to media owners, licensing, state advertising, personal intervening of politicians), the Mexican media system can be grouped together with other Latin American countries like Peru and Brazil in the Cartelism type.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Since 1917, media freedom is guaranteed by Article 6 (free expression of ideas) and 7 (freedom of writing and publishing; ban on censorship) of the Mexican Constitution (Organization of American States, 2016). However, literature on the country’s media system is full of reports about interference in media freedom and journalists’ autonomy. Even though media freedom is granted by law it is de facto not exercised in reality. Mexican media is strongly influenced by the government, organized crime, a highly concentrated market and bad working conditions for journalists.

    The Mexican media system has a long history to look back on concerning its strong ties with politics. From 1929 when the Mexican Revolution was institutionalized until 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional , PRI) was governing the country – establishing a one-party-system and extending its power in nearly all segments of society, including the media sector. In this time, “the media were subordinate rather than autonomous, passive rather than assertive, and reproducers of regime voices and messages rather than a diversity of voices and perspectives” (Hughes, 2008: 132 et seq.). The media arose oligarchic with a small number of government-related elite families controlling most of the broadcasting sector. In 1973, the media giant Televisa was created out of these structures, being one of the first descendants of state-granted concessions. It is notorious for maintaining close relations with the government. For a long time, Televisa operated without commercial competition until several state-owned stations were privatized in 1993, creating TV Azteca which turned into the second largest television station after Televisa (ibid.; cf. also journalists’ autonomy).

    In 2000, the PRI lost the elections against the right-wing conservative party PAN (Partido de Acción Nacional), which lead to a positive shift in media policy allowing especially print media to be more competitive and independent of the government and promoting quality and diversity in the print sector (journalist, The Economist; Schneider, 2011b: 53). This process of media democratization lead to several reforms, like the Federal Law on Transparency and Access to Government Information (2003), respecting journalists’ rights of access to governmental information and the amendment of Article 41 of the constitution, abolishing the possibility for political parties to purchase radio and television airtime (Schneider, 2011b: 54). In 2006, journalists finally were legally granted to protect their sources from disclosure (Hughes, 2008: 148).

    After twelve years, the PRI returned to power with the new Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto which also led to new major changes in the media sector. Due to increasing public pressure for media reforms, the IFT (Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones), a regulation authority created by the president in order to take action against market concentration in the broadcasting sector was established in 2013. One year later, the IFT created the Federal Telecommunications and Broadcasting Act (Ley Telecom), a new reform in the telecommunication sector which should facilitate greater competition among television stations (trainee, Konrad Adenauer Foundation). The law ensures that two new concessions will be granted to new broadcasters, weakening the duopoly of the two big players Televisa and TV Azteca. According to the IFT, the market dominating Televisa has to share its infrastructure with competitors (Freedom House, 2015b). Already in 2008, a new media law should have been created by government.

    However, the approach failed because the draft had not been created by parliament, but by Televisa itself (Hillenbrand, 2014). Due to recent amendments of the law by the PRI, the authority of the IFT however has been weakened. Only the company with the dominant position of the respective market can be regulated. Since Televisa is assigned to the telecommunication sector it loses its monopoly position to the big telecommunication providers América Móvil and Telmex, owned by the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim (Bräth, 2014). Therefore, regulatory measures against Televisa cannot be taken by the IFT so far. Furthermore, Ley Telecom (cf. journalists’ autonomy) authorizes the government to intercept electronic communications (e.g. by tracking and geo-locating mobile phone use in real time) and requires internet companies to save user information without judicial oversight. This could pose a significant threat to bloggers because the law theoretically enables authorities to identify journalists’ sources and monitor whistle-blowers and other individuals engaging in political expression. Consequently, Ley Telecom enhances state control over the media and simultaneously weakens journalists’ protection against censorship and monitoring (Freedom House, 2015b; cf. also journalists’ autonomy).
    Media offers
    The most important mass media channels in Mexico are TV and radio (Federal Foreign Office Germany, 2016; Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, 2011). Especially television enjoys great popularity and trust among the population and is known as the most politically influential medium as it is the main source of political information for the population (Schneider, 2011b: 48; Thomaß, 2013). The great popularity of television can be explained by the income of the Mexican population. The country has one of the largest income-gaps in Latin America which influences the diversity of media Mexicans have access to. Broadcast television and radio are by far the most accessed type of media because of their low acquisition cost. Especially radio plays an important role in rural areas due to financial restrictions and limited infrastructure. Internet and pay-TV, however, are hardest to access by the poor (Hughes, 2008: 135). Besides its strong political influence, TV also strongly serves entertainment purposes making telenovelas the most popular TV programme offer in Mexico which have also become an export hit throughout the world (Freedom House, 2015b).

    Broadcast TV
    The market structure of Mexican media is largely shaped by the dominance of the broadcasting sector. There are two different forms of broadcasting stations: cultural offers which need to be approved by authorities and are mostly state-owned and commercial stations requiring a license, which is granted by the president (Gebhardt, 2012; Matschke, 2014: 2; cf. also journalists’ autonomy). Besides some state-owned and public TV channels like Canal 11 or Canal 22, most of the Mexican broadcasters are privately-owned (Gebhardt, 2012: 2). Holding less than two per cent market share, the influence of public TV channels is rather insignificant (Gómez Garcia & Sosa-Plata, 2011: 7). The most important TV channels are Canal 2, 4, 5 & 9 owned by Televisa and Canal 7 and 13 of TV Azteca making both companies the big players on the Mexican TV market, reaching a total market share of about 90 per cent (cf. also journalists’ autonomy). Televisa owns 258 concessions to run terrestrial television with an outreach of about 60 per cent (Buerstedde, 2014; Gebhardt, 2012: 1). The biggest and most important media company of the Spanish-speaking world has established a leading position in the country. Dominating the television industry, Televisa also possesses several football clubs, marketing companies, telecommunication providers, the biggest publisher of Spanish newspapers, an important radio group, a pay-TV provider and even an airline (Schneider, 2011b: 46). The only noteworthy competitor to Televisa is the private broadcaster TV Azteca reaching a market share of about 30 per cent. The expansion of Televisa in many industries has led to a big political, economic and content-related influence. This made the broadcaster an important part of the political power system – often being labelled as a mouthpiece of the government.

    Similar to the television sector most Mexican radio stations are privately-owned. However, compared to the TV sector, commercial radio is slightly less concentrated (Gebhardt, 2012: 2; Hughes, 2008: 138). Nine companies own 70 per cent of all radio stations with Grupo ACIR (169 stations), Radiorama (116 stations) and Televisa Radio (64 stations) being three of the biggest players of the radio sector (Noam 2015). Furthermore, there are also a few state radio stations like Radio Educación owned by the Ministry of Education and about 150 to 200 free community radios. The latter are mostly located in the south and are very important to indigenous people because they offer programs in their native tongue (Gebhardt 2012: 2). They also play an important role in spreading critical information of social and political movements and are often broadcasting without license. “Community radios are political projects, an attempt to see the world differently. They must have the right to exist, both in the centre and periphery” explains María Eugenia Chávez, coordinator of the community radio association AMARC-Mexico (ibid.: p.3). However, since community radio doesn’t have a commercial purpose, it is very hard for the stations to survive with only donations as source of funding.

    In contrast to the broadcasting sector, the Mexican newspaper market is less concentrated in its ownership-structure, with a fairly broad diversity in the urban print media (Freedom House, 2015b). This fact can be explained by Mexican media history. In the past, subsidies and state support in advertising resulted in an overcrowded press market which persists until today. Yet, despite the vast number of newspapers in Mexico, readership is concentrated on just a few major publications which only have a rather small reach (Hughes 2008: 133). For example, the conservative daily El Universal (138.000), the liberal-conservative newspaper Reforma (circulation: 134.000) and the leftist daily La Jornada (108.000) are representing the biggest members of the press market (Federal Foreign Office Germany, 2016). In Mexico City, 25 daily newspapers are available reaching only 1.5 million readers (Hughes, 2008: 133) with the two major newspaper groups El Universal and Grupo Reforma dominating the market with their flagship newspapers and several tabloids. Concentrated on the capital city and provincial capitals, the press coverage is strongly focused on entertainment purposes, often being accused for tabloidization (Hughes, 2008: 133). Newspapers dealing critically with political issues are rare – one of the most influential political journals is Proceso (McPhail, 2009).

    About half of the Mexican population (2016: 54 per cent) – especially young people with higher education – is using the internet (Poushter, 2016). Until its liberalization in 1997, internet development was slowed down by non-competitive behaviour of the telecommunications company Telmex which held the monopoly on internet services back then (Hughes, 2008: 148). Since then, the country has experienced dramatic improvement in both internet penetration and quality of access making it the second biggest internet market in Latin America (after Brazil) caused by increasing digitalization and use of smartphones (McPhail, 2009). The Mexican ICT market is highly concentrated with the telecommunications giant América Móvil owning 80 per cent of the landlines and 70 per cent of wireless internet subscriptions. In many cases, the internet (especially social media) is used as a platform for digital activism, allowing users to operate under the protection of anonymity. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter have become an important source for information when reporting is made impossible by the influence of drug cartels (Freedom House, 2015a). In order to promote the network expansion, former president Vicente Fox launched the initiative e-méxico in 2003 which should guarantee internet access to all Mexican communities (Trejo Delabre, 2004: 981). Despite these efforts, Mexico still suffers of a huge digital divide between the north and the south. Many people in rural areas cannot access the World Wide Web and therefore heavily rely on information of the traditional and often biased media. In 2014, only ten per cent of the population had access to the internet in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca while more than half of the homes had access in Mexico City. However, the disparities were partially ameliorated by the availability of internet cafes (Freedom House, 2015a: 3 et seq.).
    Journalists' autonomy
    Although media freedom is granted by the Mexican Constitution, there’s serious interference in the media system by politics and drug cartels (Hughes, 2008: 147) which often consider autonomous journalists as a risk. Furthermore, high concentration of the media market and poor working conditions are regarded as a threat for media freedom in Mexico.

    Poor working conditions for journalist
    Generally, there are two ways to become a journalist in Mexico: via vocational training or by choosing an academic career (journalist, El Universal). Nowadays, there are more young reporters entering the labour market than jobs existent in the media. Besides shortcomings in journalists’ training, their working and financial conditions are often poor (Priess 2015). In many cases reporters earn less than $500 a month, making them susceptible to corruption (Flörchinger, 2015; Hughes, 2008: 147). Often media owners take bribery into account paying minimum wages to journalists because they expect that these bribes “will more than compensate for the abysmally low salaries” (Fromson, 1996: 116). Consequently, reporting is strongly biased in Mexico. Only some big newspapers, like Proceso are paying higher wages prohibiting the acceptance of bribery (Schneider, 2011a: 89).

    Strong political and economic ties of Mexican journalism with the government
    The persistence of Mexican newspapers is largely dependent on revenues from paid publications, ordered by government (gracetillas) and private advertisements which represent their largest source of income (Schneider, 2011b). This economic dependency leads to self-censorship – many (especially small) newspapers cannot afford to lose their advertisement revenues and therefore report loyal to the regime. While negative reporting about politics is permitted, the media operate in accord with an unwritten rule of not criticising government officials, especially the president (McPhail, 2009; Merrill & Miró, 1997).

    Another taboo issue is concerning the coverage about the church which owns an untouchable status in Mexico (Hughes, 2006: 92). The current state president Enrique Peña Nieto also benefits from the close connection of the media and the government. He is accused of using Televisa for his own purpose. In order to promote his electoral campaign, Nieto allegedly paid $36 million to the broadcasting station (Gebhardt 2012: 8; Matschke 2014). Furthermore, his wife is a well-known soap actress of the broadcasting giant (Priess, 2015). In fact, Emilio Azcárraga Jean, CEO of Televisa makes no secret of the fact that the broadcasting station is supporting the PRI: „Televisa considers itself part of the governmental system” (Lawson, 2002: 30). Besides influencing the newspapers via gracetillas, the president can wield power over the broadcasting system by granting concessions (cf. media offers). This results into strong market restrictions and therefore concentration. Since 1993, when TV Azteca was offered a license, no new concessions were granted (Buerstedde, 2014).

    Lack of transparency and arbitrariness are common and often criticised side effects of the licensing process (Gebhardt, 2012: 2; Schneider, 2011b: 52). In order to create more pressure on newspapers, the government is also able to restrict access to paper and ink due to monopolizing the production of both (Merrill & Miró, 1997). One example for the governmental interference is the reporting of the newspaper Excélsior about the massacre of Tlateloco in 1968, where the government shot several peacefully protesting students to death. Excélsior accused the government of mass murder and was financially ruined by severe ad loss (freelance journalist 2). In 2006, Radio Calenda reported about the dispute of the PRI and community members of the city San Antonino de Velasco. As a result, it was assaulted by PRI members and later went bankrupt (Gebhardt 2012: 8). “State-level politicians occasionally use weak judiciaries and holdover authoritarian laws to punish journalists whose work they dislike” (Hughes, 2008: 147). Furthermore, the Ley Telecom (2014) enabled authorities to identify or monitor journalists’ sources by obligating internet companies to save user-information, overriding the initiative of the protection of sources in 2006 (Freedom House, 2015b). The law also gives the government the power to shut down telecommunications services in order to prevent crime.

    High concentration of the media market
    The Mexican media market is highly concentrated with close ties to the government (freelance journalist 2). Especially in the broadcasting sector, only two big players are controlling the market: Televisa and TV Azteca, receiving about 80 per cent of advertising revenues and 94 percent of all audience ratings in the Mexican free-TV sector (Schneider, 2011b: 50; cf. also media offers). Mexican broadcast television‛s ownership structure is among the most highly concentrated private-sector systems in the world (Hughes & Lawson 2004). This is the result of a restrained licensing regime of the government in the past granting concessions only to a few selected broadcasters. Regarding the press market, the economic dependence of newspapers on private advertisements and editorials of the government has also lead to a small number of competitive market participants, mainly located in Mexico City (Hughes, 2008: 145).

    Consequently, only a few media have dominant influence on public opinion which can also be described as a “vertical orchestra” (Moreno, 2015). In many cases their contents are copied by smaller media which otherwise have to fear economic blackmail by losing advertising revenues. In order to strengthen these hegemonic structures, in 2006, the media giant Televisa used its political relations to pass a reform of the federal law on radio and television, granting the dominating actors in the broadcasting sector many advantages. This reform, also called Televisa Law, should grant a license period for 20 years and the possibility to pay for getting a concession, primarily preferring already big market players (Gómez Garcia & Sosa Plata, 2009: 1057 et seq.; Hughes, 2008: 141). The law was declared unconstitutional one year later offering new possibilities (cf. Ley Telecom) to new competitors to enter the market (Huber 2007).

    Journalism threatened by organized crime
    Mexican journalists are regularly being targeted by drug cartels: they are often threatened, kidnapped, tortured and killed for their reporting (Schneider, 2011b: 42). In the first half of 2016, already six journalists have lost their lives after writing about the work of the drug cartels. Although general coverage about the activities of the drug cartels is tolerated and often used as a convenient PR platform, journalists often risk their lives by further research: “Reporting basic information about criminal activities – including names of drug lords, smuggling routes, and prices – places journalists at direct risk‟ (Committee to Protect Journalists 2010). In its annual report in 2008, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) states: „Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the press, with journalists routinely targeted for their reporting‟ (CPJ, 2008: 6).

    According to the CPJ Impunity Index 2015, Mexico ranks 8th out of 14, having a high number of 19 unsolved murders of journalists between 2005 and 2015. Number one is Somalia with 30 unsolved cases (CPJ 2015). The increasing threat by organized crime led to a surrender of the media in many cases. In September 2010, the Mexican newspaper El Diario de Júarez, publically known for its strong reporting from the deadly streets of Cuidad Júarez, asked the drug cartels for guidance if it should publish stories on the drug war after two of their journalists were killed by cartel members. ”We ask you to explain what you want from us, what we should try to publish or not publish, so we know what to expect” (El Diario de Juárez, 2010). In order to preserve the reporters’ lives, the newspaper willingly compromised its news coverage. This example is a symbol for the acute danger for journalists and for the major threat to press freedom in Mexico.

    Interference with the media however is largely depending on the geographical position (journalist, The Economist). In several regions that are heavily controlled by organized crime, journalists cannot operate freely. Mexico is situated south of the USA having a 3200 km long border in the north which divides the two countries. The United States are an important sales market for drugs – over 90 per cent of Cocaine consumed in the USA crosses the Mexican border (Hoffmann, 2015). As a consequence, Northern Mexico is strategically important for drug cartels and therefore controlled by them, reducing media freedom dramatically in this regions (Schneider, 2011b: 54). Furthermore, the eastern harbour city Veracruz – the main trading place for drugs – is also known as one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists (Zeit Online, 2016). According to Freedom House, already 15 deaths of journalists were recorded in Veracruz with potential work-related motives since 2000 (Freedom House, 2015b). Due to this insecure environment, almost no press is situated in the north (journalist, The Economist). But even in Mexico-City, formerly known as a safe haven for journalists, Mexican photographer Rubén Espinosa was tortured and murdered in 2015 (CPJ, 2015).

    In order to protect themselves against hostility or punishment, journalists often practice self-censorship (journalist, El Universal; journalist, The Economist; Priess 2015) or anonymously use social media channels in order to speak the truth when it comes to sensitive information about the government or drug cartels – every report can lead to death. Journalists have been offered a choice: plata o plomo (silver or lead) – either you follow the unwritten rules or you’re going to regret it (freelance journalist 1; Hughes, 2006: 104).

    In some cases, only blogs and social media platforms are able to provide reliable information in a country where the media surrenders to drug-related violence and political influence. This underground journalism is increasingly on the rise in Mexico (journalist, El Universal; freelance journalist 2). Websites like Reporte Indigo, Animal Político or the famous blog Tierra del Narco are trying to fill the void of truth by daily reporting about the atrocities of the drug cartels. On Twitter the hashtag #mtyfollow informs the public about current gunfights and murders in Monterrey. However, the cartels also make every effort to identify the blog owners. Two years ago, the founder of the website Nuevo Laredo en vivo, María Macías was found decapitated on the streets, next to a threatening message of the Los Zetas crime syndicate (Burghardt, 2013; Viohl, 2013). Due to public pressure the government released a federal program on the Protection of Human Right Defenders and Journalists in 2013, to protect reporters against hostile attacks. However, because of missing funds and lacking of political support the program failed to yield prosecutions. Calling for a full investigation of the crimes, a letter was written to the president by more than 600 journalists, supported by the CPJ reading: “Organized crime, corrupt government officials, and a justice system incapable of prosecuting criminals all contribute to reporters’ extreme vulnerability” (CPJ, 2015).

    Yet, still many deaths of journalists are not adequately investigated – the national authorities are often either unable or unwilling to detect the murder, leading to a lack of trust towards the government and the police (Burghardt, 2013; freelance journalist 2; Hughes, 2008: 147; Weiss, 2013). According to the human rights organization Article 19 only ten per cent of all cases since 2000 were resolved (Rüb, 2015). Corruption seems one of the biggest obstacles in the fight against organized crime (Priess, 2015; trainee, Konrad Adenauer Foundation). It is presumed that many national authorities have been infiltrated by bribes of the cartels (Flörchinger, 2015). However, it is even more striking to see that there’s also a lack of public pressure against media freedom violations. Reasons can be found in the reputation of Mexican journalists in society who are often seen as a mouthpiece of the government (freelance journalist 1; journalist, El Universal). This image can be explained by the strong long-term interference of the government with the media which is hardly indispensable from the minds of the public. Furthermore, the Mexican media is often accused of a boulevard character which results in a negative effect on the credibility of journalism (freelance journalist 1; Priess 2015). It is surprising to note that there exists a clear discrepancy between the public image of journalism and the way journalists perceive themselves and their work. Many Mexican journalists see themselves primarily as investigators and defenders of truth (freelance journalist 1; journalist, El Universal; journalist, The Economist).
    This country report is largely based on a seminar paper composed by Beatrice Böres and Laura Trinkl at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich in 2015. All interviews have been conducted by them from January to February 2015. The author thanks Ms. Böres and Ms. Trinkl for their work, without which this country report wouldn’t have been possible.

    Interviewed experts (remote via Skype, telephone, email)
    • Two freelancers (freelance journalist 1: journalist, author & blogger; freelance journalist 2: journalist, blogger)
    • Two newspaper journalists (The Economist: culture journalist; El Universal: economic journalist)
    • One trainee of the foreign office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation
    • Frank Priess, Deputy Director of the Department for European and International Cooperation of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation


    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Katharina Dorn: Mexiko. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date).

    When reporting on crime in Mexico, journalists face extremely dangerous situations. Source:

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