By Michael Lettieri and Gabriel Garcia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 perfer-vid 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.
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.
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 Re-volution 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.
Michael Lettieri is a Research Fellow and Gabriel Garcia is a Research Associate with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org.