The Tail Wags the Dog: Mexico’s “Televisa Law” Another Nail in the Coffin of Fox’s Legacy

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  • “Reforms” to Mexico’s media laws will likely concentrate power (and additional billions) in the hands of the already dominant Televisa juggernaut
  • Despite well-founded concerns over the potential effects that the changes could have on Mexican democracy, the Mexican Congress pushed the modifications through, and Fox signed off on the measure
  • The reckless manner in which the reforms were approved reveals that lingering apprehensions over the quality of Mexico’s political institutions, even nearly six years after the end of the authoritarian system, are grounded in reality

On April 11, Mexican democracy experienced yet another setback when President Vicente Fox officially signed off on controversial reforms to the country’s Federal Radio and Television law. The changes, which have been derisively referred to as the “Televisa Law” because their chief beneficiaries will be the country’s already all-powerful media corporations like Televisa (which is a major shareholder in Univision), sped through the legislative process at an alarming rate before being approved by the Senate on March 30. The ratification came despite numerous objections from civic and human rights groups, and occurred with such rapidity that many questioned the lawmakers’ motivations and influences. In a country where the mass media currently wields tremendous political power, the possibility that an even greater degree of influence will be concentrated in Televisa, and the slightly smaller TV Azteca, can only be considered alarming, and potentially could seriously hamper its process of democratic consolidation.

Reforming Backwards

The modifications to the applicable provisions of the Federal Radio and Television law were originally billed as an opportunity to improve the efficiency and autonomy of Mexico’s mass media. A key modification was made concerning the present regulation of concessions for new spectrum, ending the system of presidential control over the granting of licenses and replacing it with a public auction. This effectively ends the government’s active intervention in the regulatory process. In theory this was to be a positive change; however, the reality is that the new arrangement will permit the country’s massively wealthy media corporations to consolidate their power by virtue of their existing irresistible financial clout.

Furthermore, existing broadcasters receive tremendous benefits from the new changes, as they are not required to pay for new spectrum, which could be used for new services such as high-definition TV or other telecom innovations. Potential broadcasters, however, are forced to compete in the bidding process for concessions, and subsequently must pay for spectrum, raising significant barriers to outside companies seeking to enter the market. The free rein given to Televisa and TV Azteca to expand is akin to staging a raid on the public treasury and is disturbing not only because of the potential reinforcement of the de facto media duopoly, but because, according to Mexico City daily El Universal, “Experts describe the proposed move as a massive giveaway of public assets that will cost the treasury billions and block new players from the market.”

Additional concerns arose over changes that granted the communications board, COFETEL, significant autonomy and power over how to regulate the industry, which could create problems if the body’s newfound importance makes it susceptible to corruption and pressure from the media behemoths. Three of the current COFETEL commissioners resigned in protest after Fox signed off on the legislation.

Moreover, the reforms make no mention of local community broadcasting, which has emerged as a valuable component of the regional democratization mix. For groups like the Zapatistas, which as part of the 1996 San Andrés accords were granted the right to acquire, administer, and operate their own means of autonomous media communication, the new legislation potentially forces them into a gladiatorial arena with the corporations.

The reforms’ numerous shortcomings and oversights provoked an outpouring of public interest, with prominent academics joining newspapers and civil society in vociferously condemning them. Various social organizations like the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters in Mexico (AMARC) have denounced the reforms, citing their numerous negative aspects. Human rights organizations, including the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) decried the measure, and criticism came as well from Mexico’s independent anti-trust commission, as well as the Federal Electoral Institute.

Greasing the Skids: A Democratic Charade

Nevertheless, such public opposition seemed to scarcely register on the legislative process. On December 1, 2005, the Chamber of Deputies unanimously passed the reforms in a vote that took all of seven minutes. When the public debate intensified as the bill reached the Senate, it became evident that the lower body’s approval process had been deeply flawed. To begin, the legislation had been authored and proposed by deputies of questionable integrity – Miguel Lucero Palma of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Javier Orozco Gomez of the Green Party (PVEM), the latter a former Televisa employee. Rumors even surfaced that Televisa execs had a hand in the drafting of the text. Further darkening the process was the fact that votes, it appeared, had been obtained through a sort of legislative wrangling, where party whips ensured that their faithful cadres would dutifully support the measure – indeed the Chamber voted unanimously in its favor. According to Mexican City daily La Jornada, PRI deputy Emilio Chauyffet told his fellow party members that the reforms “must be approved on the ‘orders’ of [PRI’s] presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo Pintado.”

By the time the legislation had arrived in the Senate, however, Mexican civil society was up in arms, vocally criticizing the measure and demanding changes that would limit its detrimental impacts. Some Senators agreed with such critiques, and a hearty debate ensued, often tainted with vitriolic ad hominem attacks. While opposition to the measure did not break cleanly down party lines, objectors, in spite of their best efforts, were unable to force alterations to the original text of the law. Arguments against the reforms, offered by Javier Corral Jurado of the National Action Party (PAN) and Manuel Bartlett of the PRI were either ignored or quashed, and those who were in its favor seemed to have rehearsed an argument that would not allow convincing counterattacks. The battle went as far as having priista Mario Gonzalez Zarur raising a fist and insulting Bartlett. Nevertheless, after a six and a half hour debate, the reforms were passed by a vote of 81 in favor, 40 opposed with 4 abstentions and 3 senators absent.

While such coercion has an undeniably disagreeable aroma, it is the motivation behind the parties’ willingness to roll over to oblige the craven desires of Televisa that is especially alarming. In Mexico’s perfervid political arena, the importance of the mass media is enormous, and the near-duopoly that exists – with Televisa and TV Azteca commanding 95% of the national viewing audience and the former controlling four out of the six national channels – meant that in order to ensure favorable (or avoid unfavorable) coverage of their candidates in an election year, parties were willing to rubber stamp the “Televisa Law.” Shamefully enough, so great was the fear of media reprisals that none of the three major candidates, including the leftwing Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was willing to aggressively speak out against the reforms. The overweening influence of wealthy and powerful forces in a putatively democratic process must be of utmost concern, as it signals the potential for further self-serving manipulation by corporate interests in the already frail Mexican lawmaking process.

Remote Controller

Such malignant operations are nothing new for Televisa, which for many years served as a loyal mouthpiece of the authoritarian PRI regime. Even as other media outlets, principally the press, were breaking from state control, Televisa remained firmly under the control of the PRI and the president, in particular. In the hotly contested 1988 presidential elections, Televisa refused to broadcast the rallies of opposition candidates Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Manuel Clouthier, despite a growing tide of popular support for Cárdenas’ candidacy. Even as late as 1994, Televisa could be counted on to slant its political coverage heavily in favor of the PRI.

The possibility that the modifications to the Federal Radio and Television Law will reinforce a near-monopolistic system of media domination poses profound ramifications for Mexico’s still un-validated democratization process. Much of the population has only limited access to the print media, which is the country’s most independent news source, and the internet is similarly widely unavailable. This creates a preternatural reliance on mass media – TV and radio – for information, and there is little to suggest that Televisa and TV Azteca, out of a spirit of fair play, will be able to self-regulate in order to guarantee equal access to all points of view. Rather, it is a near certainty that the two media giants will come to have an overarching influence over public opinion and daily life.

Changing Channels

There is still hope that opponents will succeed in tripping up the “Televisa Law.” A number of legislators have pushed to have the Supreme Court review the measure for its potential unconstitutionality. The cross-party coalition cites several articles of the Mexican Constitution, such as Article 28, which prohibits monopolies, and Article 134, which obliges the government to carry out bidding for work and service contracts. On April 11, Manuel Bartlett and PAN Senator Jesús Vicencio claimed to have lined up 45 members to support a push for a Supreme Court review, three more than the 42 (33%) necessary. In the Chamber of Deputies, 111 members have signed on in opposition, but this falls short of the 167 (again, 33%) necessary to send the reforms to the Court. Likewise, congressional dissidents have launched a set of “parallel” reforms, which are designed to amend the “Televisa” measure and could gain steam if Mexican public opinion continues to speak out against the anti-democratic modifications. Furthermore, it has been suggested that should López Obrador win the presidency, he would possibly explore counter-reform options.

The Tail Wags the Dog

During the 1980s, when PRI presidents made ample use of the mass media for political ends, it was joked that Televisa was “a soldier of the president.” Formal democracy arrived in Mexico in 2000, but seems to have brought with it the seeds of a now troubling reversal. According to Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) Senator Raymundo Cárdenas, “Mexico, it appears, has been converted into a soldier of Televisa.” The facility with which the media corporations successfully manipulated the varying electoral ambitions of political parties represents a rank perversion of the democratic process.

Fox, who sought to stake his legacy on reformist credentials, has instead overseen a series of slip-ups which have stagnated the possible advance of democracy, with the “Televisa Law” being among his most egregious missteps. People’s perception and opinions are heavily influenced by the media. Therefore, there must be a plurality of media sources, not only two, and the reforms guarantee that power remains highly concentrated. Without a truly independent and diversified mass media, Mexico seems destined to continue along its faltering process of democratic consolidation.