In the past decade, Mexico has become one of the riskiest and deadliest countries where to practice journalism, excluding those at war. The rise in criminal and political violence in regions that function as hubs of criminal activity, organised crime and sociopolitical conflict, pose a continuing threat for both quality journalism and journalists’ safety and represent a challenging environment for information access, voice diversity and the quality of democracy overall. In their 2018 joint report, the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights characterise the situation in Mexico as a complex one. On the one hand, there exists an emerging presence of watchdog reporting and investigative journalism that is being conducted in independent and alternative news media. On the other hand, journalists’ killings and anti-press violence are on the rise as crimes and aggressions against journalists remain unsolved and unpunished. The intensification of political polarization resulting from the 2018 presidential elections has, in fact, worsened the opportunity for quality and professional journalism to regain citizen trust and serve as the forum for citizen debate.

Despite an overall improvement in electoral competition and institution building since the political reforms of the late 1990s, the so-called “transitional democracy” of the new millennium has not been accompanied by a political environment that enables the unrestrictive rule of law. There is an absence of strong institutions capable of enforcing the existing legislation concerning the protection of journalists and human rights defenders or of effectively prosecuting crimes against them. The Prosecutor’s Office for the Attention of Crimes against Freedom of Expression or the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists within the Secretariat of the Interior, both measures have failed to meet journalists’ expectations. In a culture of widespread impunity in punishing journalists’ killings, other less visible aggressions such as threats, intimidation, physical attacks, hostility, or criminalisation are not only common, but routinely perpetrated by public officials or security forces. As NGOs and observers suggest, on top of criminal cartels, a relatively new actor in many areas, old suspects are behind a great deal of anti-press violence: local politicians, mobs, security forces or the police, to name a few.

In that respect, a nationally representative survey of 377 journalists conducted as part of the Worlds of Journalism Study in Mexico showed that four in ten surveyed journalists had been threatened, and three quarters of those have been threatened more than once. Of those who have been threatened, nearly 43 percent attribute the source of the threat to a story related to organised crime and around 35 percent to a political story.

The situation worsened in the past few years. According to Article 19, in the full presidential tenure of Enrique Peña Nieto alone (2012-2018), there were 47 journalists’ killings and 2,522 anti-press attacks, with the last year being the deadliest; whereas in the current López Obrador’s administration beginning December 2019, there have been 637 aggressions and at least 15 killings. This means that there is a recorded number of at least 135 murder cases since 2000 –the year of political takeover that finally saw a new, oppositional political party in office after 70 year of single-party rule. As the figures grow on a daily basis, Mexico is branded a “partly free” country by Freedom House’s annual index on freedom of expression.

In a context of growing violence both at the societal level but also at the media-targeted level, journalists feel constantly threatened and vulnerable. Research shows that those covering violence-related issues normally suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other health related ailments. Journalists who work in risky areas suffer considerably at professional, societal and personal level having to implement and improvise self-devised security measures to protect themselves, such as self-censorship, publishing anonymously, changing daily routines and routes, keeping a low profile, reporting in packs, or even changing location and place of residence. Journalists being displaced from violent locations face constant hardships to re-establish themselves at the personal and professional level. Research shows how media houses rarely provide training, security measures or safety protocols.

At the same time, they have shown impressive levels of resilience and commitment to continue covering sensitive issues, particularly on the effects of corruption, criminal violence, human rights abuses, State repression, missing and displaced people or migration. Most quality work on these topics is being conducted collaboratively and with the support of gremial organizations and overseas funding. The coverage of these issues is not always as broad and deep in mainstream media and it has been up to digital independent media, correspondents from international media or senior freelance journalists working for high-profile media to work on these issues -particularly through long-form formats such as features, magazines, digital and multimedia specials and even authored books.

Apart from limited press freedom in several areas, other systemic characteristics shape Mexico’s media landscape. The development of media markets in Mexico is generally weak, with very high concentration of the mass-oriented, broadcasting sector that reaches large national audiences, and a relatively more competitive market of elite-oriented newspapers reaching very small national and regional audiences. In parallel, a style of mass-oriented sensationalist press has historically prevailed across the country, mostly consisting of sports tabloids and crime news locally known as Nota Roja (Red News). Their display of morbid, even macabre coverage of crime stories normally boosts circulation figures. These titles often become the main source for revenue in media houses that also publish – or whose main product are — legacy newspapers. A more recent trend has been the widespread circulation and distribution of free dailies in large metropolitan areas, funded by private, usually local, advertisers that normally display human-interest stories and light content. This apparent competitive market would suggest a very large number of newspapers for an equally largely populated country. Only in Mexico City alone, with an estimated population of 25 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area and wherein most of the national media headquarters are located, in 2019 there were 57 registered daily publications and 206 magazines in the most recent Secretariat of the Interior online directory, most of them intended for a regional and national reach. While the number of newspaper titles alone could be taken as an indication of a highly competitive market, readerships of elite-oriented newspapers are often much lower than actual print-runs, as they all compete for a very small fragment of readers.

Furthermore, commercial television networks continue to be the most popular and influential sources of news in Mexico, according to the latest Reuters Digital News Report of 2019 as well as to the 2019 IFT Survey. However, domestic digital-born outlets are gaining prominence, and printed newspapers and their websites still tend to hold an influential and prestigious place, particularly in subnational regions, where they tend to be the most dominant sources for local news and local advertisement. Local and regional newspapers still tend to set the news and political agenda.

Historically, the development of media industries in Mexico occurred at contrasting paces. The Mexican printed press has always been oriented towards elites, as its origins suggest a late development deeply tied to the political and intellectual sphere of the 19th century. The earliest printed publications were never used with commercial purposes, but as the conveyors of ideological and political crusades aimed at the educated, politicised minorities. In contrast, the broadcast industry is a different matter altogether in terms of successful development and commercial position. Like in most of Latin America, scholars have concluded that the configuration of radio and television industries clearly imitated the commercial patterns and structure of the US media system, along its sponsored TV news formats, genres and presentation styles. Entertainment has long been the mission of the main terrestrial TV networks in Mexico: Televisa and TV Azteca.

With respect to political parallelism, one of the dimensions for the analysis of media systems, there is a sustained history of partisanship. The elitist, partisan press of the XIX century mostly spoke on behalf of the various political factions—ranging from liberal reformists to conservative royalists—that battled to seize power but that also staged passionate debates in the papers and, up to some extent, functioned as the emerging public and political sphere. However, not all the partisan press was necessarily intellectual or philosophical in nature. Press historians have observed the existence of opportunist writers who would sell out to specific interests and would spread during election time, with the sole purpose of backing some candidates or denigrating their rivals. It is a trend surviving to date, with a sui generis market-driven form of partisanship being a key trait of the Mexican contemporary media system. For example, two long standing legacy newspapers, Excélsior and El Universal were born in that declining period of partisanship, each financed by politicians pertaining to different factions in post-Revolution politics, but both have managed accommodating to the political interests of today.

Instead of commercialism, it was actually the dictatorial political context that contributed to the replacement of pluralist militant publications overtly endorsing political causes, into more homogenous publications with propagandist functions pandering the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). The party ruled interruptedly for more than seven decades throughout the 20th century and later in a shorter spell from 2012-2018. More than a mere political party, the PRI transformed itself into a political and social complex that laid the grounds for the development of political clientelism, one of the most salient traits of Mexican political culture. It consisted in building its popular sector support through long-awaited benefits in exchange of party loyalty. Clientelism permeated the political life, including the State’s relation with the media. In the case of the press, clientelism was based on the discretionary allocation of large budgets of governmental or official advertising in exchange for party support.

As a result, the traditional press-partisanship based on ideological and political affinity — as it was during the earliest days of press in Mexico — is no longer the case. The media system is still deeply entrenched in clientelism resulting in many news media remaining, in the best of cases, politically neutral when neutrality is suitable for their interests but become actively partisan in favour or against certain actors or during certain events—out of convenience. They may choose to align themselves with the politician in government to maximize their opportunities to capitalize large advertising budgets. This is because news media continue to be highly reliant and even dependent on the State’s advertising contracts, given the fragmented markets, traditionally low readerships and subscriptions, and underdeveloped private advertising sector. In contrast, governmental agencies and politicians are always eager to publicise themselves, especially as they court citizens’ votes.

Advertising budgets are frequently denied to critical or independent publications as a form of reprimand, and generous contracts have been historically allocated to loyal news media. According to scholar Chappell Lawson, in the late 1980s only about a dozen of Mexico’s 250-odd newspapers could have survived without direct or indirect government assistance.

As the discretionary allocation of advertisement contracts elicits pro-government coverage and hinders pluralism and watchdog journalism, activists and observers have long demanded more transparent criteria and less taxpayer money being spent in publicity. Many State agencies even go over budget when falling in these practices. For example, the think tank FUNDAR, which monitors the transparency in budget allocation, denounced that the federal administration spent nearly 51 thousand million pesos in buying airtime and adverts for official publicity from 2013-17, near double than the total budget for the 2018 federal elections and twice as much of what the Mexican Congress passed originally. The 2019 Article 19 report reveals that Enrique Peña’s Nieto presidency spent MX $60bn in official advertising in total. Through the clientelist press-State relations that political advertising entails, this sui generis form of convenient partisanship has been a key and toxic ingredient of the Mexican media system that has hindered journalistic professionalisation and autonomy.

Following with media system dimensions, journalistic professionalism is generally low in Mexico. For most of the 20th century, the press/state relations embedded in complicity and coercion decisively impacted the journalistic culture and its practices and norms. Due to the partisan nature of the early press, journalism did not consolidate as an autonomous, self-regulated profession with its own set of normative values, missions, code of ethics or public service orientation. As a result, for most of the 20th century during the era of the industrial press, journalistic autonomy was considerably restricted, and journalists were highly instrumentalised by the ruling political party.

There is a wide consensus that, during that extensive 70-year period, mainstream news media, high-profile columnists and TV anchors generally operated as mouthpieces and lapdogs of the regime, with only few, marginal exceptions. The instrumentalisation of journalists in Mexico operated mainly through the implicit complicity between media and political elites. However, the most common means for co-opting salaried, low-paid reporters and editors were ‘chayote’ and ‘embute’, infamous payoffs distributed in most governmental branches at federal and local levels. Recipients took them as their entitlement to supplement their low salaries and compensate for poor working conditions and job insecurity in exchange for positive or uncritical coverage. These were still widespread practices until the mid-1990s in most governmental branches at the federal and local level, vastly institutionalised in newsrooms, and rarely questioned or deemed as unethical. News organisations generally relied on these extra incentives to entice new recruits and staff.

Other common means of instrumentalisation were commissions on advertising deals, free meals for reporters and news managers, as well as free transportation and hotel accommodation, sponsored junkets to resorts, luxury gifts sent to newsrooms and other benefits for journalists working on a specific governmental beat or for news editors and managers.

The news writing style also reflected this environment. Throughout the 20th century, it has been documented how sycophantic forms of reporting and deference towards the president in office tended to prevail. Facts were reported partially and rarely reflected all sides of the story in the sense that the concept of objectivity entails, especially critical voices who were marginalized, invisibilized or misrepresented. Moreover, the Mexican term declaracionitis is still a jargon concept to characterise the reporting method consisting of verbatim quoting of sources’ utterances and statements, without contrast, context or critical analysis.

The gradual professionalisation of journalism occurred in parallel to key events affecting the media landscape of the late 1970s. One of the most notorious examples is the coup to Excelsior. The newspaper’s growingly critical tone increased State hostility and surveillance that resulted in a government-orchestrated coup staged by pro-regime staff to enforce the dismissal of then-director Julio Scherer and his allies in 1976. Upon leaving the paper, they launched investigative weekly Proceso, one of the pioneers of watchdog journalism in the country that also faced periods of advertising boycotts and State hostility. Also resulting from the Excélsior chasm, other critical newspapers like Uno más Uno and La Jornada emerged in the early 1980s, endorsing professional journalistic values, embracing civic and democratic norms and becoming the voice for the progressive minorities and emerging civil society. At the other side of the spectrum, El Financiero and its serious coverage of financial affairs and the economic crisis in the 1980s also promoted contrasting professional values in their staff and became the channel for the pro-market, neoliberal forces. With their critical inquiries and antagonistic styles of presenting, some radio news programmes and anchors also contributed to the gradual democratisation of the media and the professionalisation of journalism in general.

However, as several media scholars would argue, the processes of professionalisation were uneven. Mainstream TV news - commercial and public state channels - and most newspapers were still pro-regime allies until at least the early 1990s and journalists were trained primarily on the job. However, it was until the launching of Reforma in 1993, a centre-right liberal newspaper, that a new cadre of young and educated journalists opposing the old guard of press/state relations and embracing new professional values paved the way for the modernisation of journalism, the erosion of chayote and embute and the institutionalisation of objectivity and other norms of the profession. However, the results were neither enduring not enough to sustain a widespread adoption of professional norms and values aiming at improving the quality of reporting across news stories, topics and sections.

Still, journalistic professionalisation has improved in the past three decades. According to the Worlds of Journalism Study consisting of 377 surveys in Mexico –one of the most representative surveys of Mexican journalists to date—, journalists tended to be university-educated in 2015: three quarters of survey respondents (75.1 percent) held a bachelor’s degree, and of those, the majority specialised either in journalism, another communication field, or both. With respect to their professional values, in theory, the importance given to roles associated with being a critical change agent was the highest in a one to five scale (mean = 4.36), followed by roles associated to the watchdog function of the press (mean = 4.09). In contrast, the historical roles associated with a propagandist, loyalist function of the press, scored much lower (mean = 3.30). For its part, the Journalistic Role Performance cross-national study in Mexico, a cross-national comparative study of journalistic roles in news content, corroborate that democratic roles, such as the watchdog and civic functions of the press have, in fact, gained a foothold in the Mexican national newspaper. They are found twice as much in news stories than the loyal-facilitator role. This means that news content is more likely to reflect democratic functions of the press whereas the propagandist functions are decreasing.

As for ethical standards, 95 percent of Worlds of Journalism survey respondents agreed that journalists should always adhere to professional codes of ethics, regardless of context or circumstance and most of them condemned questionable ethical practices, such as accepting payoffs: only 3.5 percent deemed payoffs justified on occasion.

The study also shows how, despite the endorsement of professional norms, journalistic autonomy is still severely constrained by internal and external factors. First, poor working conditions continue as Mexican journalists work on average for 2.21 different newsrooms and over a third of them has additional jobs outside the area of journalism. Moreover, three quarters of respondents perceived to have freedom to select news stories and news angles, but only in broad topics such as poverty or social issues albeit with limitations or in a politicised manner. Only around a quarter of respondents admitted having freedom to report on organised crime in the 2013-2015 survey. Results also show that a great deal of extra organisational, organisational and individual factors influence journalistic work, with organisational (mean = 3.77), economic (mean = 2.90) and sociopolitical (mean = 2.79) factors being the highest sources of influence in a one to five scale. This means that, on average, while political and economic pressures continue to influence everyday work, it is actually hierarchical newsrooms and their policies what wields a greater influence on journalists, limiting their autonomy.

With a history of political instrumentalisation of journalists and traditionally low professionalisation, there are reasons for concern. In the new digital landscape, global forces and commercial pressures are also constraining journalistic autonomy: Journalists perceive audience-related factors to have an increased impact in their work (M=4.27) in a one to five scale. Likewise, apart from the traditional suspects such as the State and political elites, it is now organised crime who threatens and instrumentalises journalism in Mexico. Eight in ten journalists perceive an increase in anti-press crimes, and around six in ten consider that political attacks and mob attacks against their peers have increased.

In sum, despite an overall endorsement of ethical values and professionalisation at the individual level, most journalists still face a myriad of obstacles to reduce the gap between their norms and aspirations and their actual practice. Not only clientelism continues to undermine their autonomy, but also commercial factors, the digital ecosystems, social polarisation and conflict and organised crime now pose recurring threats to journalistic autonomy.

Taking into account the state intervention as the last dimension of a media system, in spite of the private nature of the Mexican media system, State intervention in the media operates in several ways, normally beyond the legal framework of media operations and within a context of widespread clientelism, as occurs in other Latin American and Mediterranean countries, but with its particular nuances. Historically, until the early 1990s, one of the most effective instruments of the Mexican State in controlling and co-opting the media was the subsidy and monopolisation of newsprint production and distribution by the State supplier PIPSA. In exchange for the low-priced material, publishers were not legally obliged but certainly expected to offer positive coverage and their unconditional support to PRI and to the president.

Unlike other regulatory practices that allow for the legal intervention of the State or political parties in the media or even in the licensing of journalists, Mexico’s media system enjoyed a relatively autonomous and hospitable environment for the development of commercially oriented outlets and the consolidation of concentrated markets with predominant actors. Historically, regulation (or the lack of it) was always favourable to the biggest enterprises and to the regime’s allies. Newspapers are not licensed or regulated by any central government-related agency that oversees their functioning, content, or the public’s complaints, and the press has been left to regulate itself. With respect to the broadcasting sector, obsolete legislation and myriad loopholes permitted unregulated concentration of media assets in the hands of a few families. Until recent reforms in the sector, discretionary powers had always played an important role in the renewal of broadcasting concessions and licences, which were awarded decades ago to PRI’s political allies and have been ratified automatically to their original grantees. Several attempts to regulate the media in the face of pluralism and digitalisation had failed to restrain the powers of the main players, who always used to work legislation in their favour, until the 2014 Telecommunications reform came along.