Mexico’s booming media industry is controlled by some of the richest businessmen on earth. While the sector grows at a rate three times that of the overall economy, an alarming concentration of media ownership goes hand in hand with the well-known lack of safety for Mexico’s journalists, many of whom cannot even make a living from their precarious salaries, increasing their vulnerability to pressures of all kinds. The almost traditional concentration of a lot of power in the hands of very few media magnates and politicians also comes as a result of blatant regulatory flaws.
Media and politics: a corrupt relationship
For most of the media outlets selected for the MOM sample, the political affiliations of their owners are not easily detectable. Still, the linkages are undeniable since most – depending on the level of criticism of their coverage – get punished or rewarded by the government through the allocation of its vast advertising budget, which amounted to almost 2 billion US Dollars over the last four years.
In Mexico it is also common for the owners of broadcasting concessions to be legislators at the same time. This is especially visible in the engagement of high-profile managers of the country’s two dominant television companies Televisa and TV Azteca in the State legislative bodies. Some of these managers, such as Lorena Corona Valdés, a former Legal Director at Radiopolis of Televisa and Tristán Canales, who used to be Vice President of TV Azteca News, were even appointed members of Parliamentary Committees, for example the ones on Radio, Television and Cinematography, on Communication or Transport. At a certain point , this particular group of people came to be more in number than the representatives from the small political parties, both in the Senate and in the lower house. Because of their influence they are also known as Telebancada (Spanish for the ‘bench of the television’), representing the interests of the Mexican media magnates.
Media elites are the government’s favorites
Of the 42 media outlets analyzed by MOM Mexico, 38 gain significant revenues from government advertising and are thus depending on it. Although more than one thousand companies compete for these advertising funds, half of the amount is allocated to only ten of the business groups analyzed in this study. Grupo Televisa alone received 17% of the total and TV Azteca 9.8%, followed a distant third and fourth among media groups by El Universal newspaper (2.7%) and Grupo Fórmula (2.7%). Overall, television companies received 35% of the government’s advertising budgets, followed by radio (19%), printed (17%) and online media (6%).
In striking contrast, the largest online media outlets by audience reach, such as Aristegui Noticias, Sin Embargo and Animal Político, receive only very small amounts of government advertising for being perceived as government critics. Whereas still most of the online media analyzed by MOM Mexico remain backed by well-established legacy media outlets, over the last few years the independent start-ups have become some of the most visited digital outlets, with more than 2 million unique visits per month each.
As such a high level of in-transparent state spending on media, based on favoritism, causes economical dependencies and promotes self-censorship, thus posing an imminent threat to media pluralism in Mexico, a collective movement called #MediosLibres (free media) has been formed by now close to one hundred civil society organizations (including Cencos). They are jointly calling on the Mexican parliament to draft and pass a law to regulate the fair and transparent distribution of government advertising, as it was instructed to do by the Supreme Court of Justice in November 2017. The legislators are facing the deadline of April 2018 to comply with the Court’s ruling, but very few observers expect this to happen on time, even less in an election year.
A history of media concentration and lack of transparency
One of the main obstacles for conducting the MOM investigation in Mexico was a surprising lack of reliable audience data. Market research firms in Mexico analyze only those media companies that hire them. So the results remain fragmentary and do not reflect the overall market situation in the country. To make things worse in terms of transparency, the research companies deliver results only to their clients and not to the general public.
Adding to this, in Mexico most companies are not obliged to disclose any information about their structure to the public, let alone reveal the names of owners and their percentage of shares. This is obligatory only for media companies listed at the stock exchange by means of financial market – not media – regulation. The Federal Institute of Telecommunications as the relevant regulatory authority does require broadcasting corporations to provide data, but even this information is dispersed and presented in such a complex manner that access to sufficient information in order to identify media owners is practically inhibited.
Due to the lack of reliable and complete data, Mexico is the first and so far only country within the global MOM project in which it has been impossible to calculate the audience concentration according to the standardized MOM methodology. However, qualitative research offers sufficient information, which suggests a high risk in this domain, especially in the television industry dominated by the duopoly of Televisa and TV Azteca. According to the latest available data (of 2011), both companies controlled more than 90% of the audience at the time. As they still operate most of the commercial concessions and television networks with national coverage, this figure is still seen as roughly valid.
Insufficient regulatory framework and a weak regulatory authority
The regulatory framework in Mexico has proven insufficient to limit the undue ownership concentration, which includes control of markets both within and across the free-to-air and pay TV, radio, printed press and online media sectors . For example, in two occasions, the FIT established that Grupo Televisa would not have substantial market power, even though the Institute’s investigation unit found evidence that Televisa was in the position to impede competition. The measures imposed by the regulatory authority have not succeeded in decreasing or even limiting the control over media by the main operators; even worse, in some market segments, such as pay television, the concentration levels have increased. In 2014, Televisa’s cable and satellite TV providers had 53% of market share already, by 2017 this number went up by 13%.
Despite new public tenders for hundreds of terrestrial radio and TV frequencies, most of them stayed in the hands of already established players and only relatively few were awarded to new applicants. So far, the telecommunication sector reforms have proven beneficial to Emilio Azcárraga Jean’s Grupo Televisa while limiting the expansion plans of América Móvil, owned by Carlos Slim, who was as one point considered the richest man on earth.
The economic gap between the journalists and the media owners
A striking feature while analyzing Mexico’s most relevant media outlets was that most of the owners can be described as billionaires, magnates, powerful, influential. In most cases, their actual wealth is not known to the public, since it remains mostly hidden in tax heavens or dubious trust funds. Their names, however, keep appearing in business magazines that follow their trails. On the 2018 Forbes list of wealthiest Mexicans, the names of three owners or shareholders in the most influential media appear in the top16: Carlos Slim Helú (UnoTV), Ricardo Salinas Pliego (TV Azteca) and Emilio Azcárraga Jean (Televisa).
Despite their personal wealth, the media owners in Mexico pay precarious salaries: In March 2018, the human resources platform Indeed estimated the average salary of a Mexican reporter, based on 835 job offerings, at 4,560 Mexican pesos or 245 US Dollars per month. In comparison, the average monthly wage in Mexico is 390 US Dollars.
In 2017 alone, at least eleven journalists were murdered in Mexico in direct connection with their work. For instance, Friday will mark the first anniversary of the murder of Miroslava Breach in Chihuahua on March 23rd last year. 2018 has seen another journalists’ murder with the killing of Carlos Domínguez Rodríguez in Tamaulipas on January 13th. Mexico was ranked 147th out of 180 countries in the 2017 edition of RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.