Mexico: Transparency in a New Era of Democracy

Cover story, Centerpoint January 2008

Jan 02, 2008

Mexico is grappling with economic, security, and civic challenges, and is doing so from the vantage of a nascent democracy. In 2000, the election of Vicente Fox, an opposition candidate, signaled the end of 71 years of rule by a single party. Now, however, the country's political leaders must face the challenges of governing within the framework of a democratic society, which is increasingly making demands for political openness.

Although Fox was highly popular during most of his six-year term, he made few significant legislative strides, since he could rarely reach agreement with Congress. In 2006, Felipe Calderón won the presidency by a narrow margin in a highly disputed election. His and Fox's party, the National Action Party, now holds 41 percent of the seats in Congress, giving him an advantage over his predecessor and the possibility to enact real reform by building alliances with opposition parties.

Several recent Mexico Institute seminars highlight challenges ahead for Mexico. As a new democracy, Mexico confronts such issues as freedom of the press, transparency, and access to information. At these seminars, Mexican and U.S. experts and journalists discuss how to address these challenges and facilitate more bilateral dialogue.

Transparency and Access to Information
President Fox's most significant legislative reform was the Federal Law for Transparency and Access to Information that grants citizens' access to most public documents, much like the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, a significant achievement for Mexico after decades of one-party rule. The successes and limitations of this law were the subject of a recent Mexico Institute seminar. Mexican and U.S. experts joined the editors of Mexico's Right to Know Reforms: Civil Society Perspectives, a book published in English and Spanish, to assess the law's capacity on a wide range of dimensions.

Former Wilson Center Fellow Jonathan Fox, a co-editor and professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz, said the book seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis of challenges to transparency in Mexico, even beyond the access to information law. Co-editor Tania Sánchez Andrade, a consultant for Fundar, Center for Analysis and Research, said civil society organizations, who primarily use this law, increasingly are demanding government accountability. She noted, though, the law is deficient in addressing poverty and inequality because accessing public information requires technical tools not readily available to all sectors of the population.

Helena Hofbauer, founding director of Fundar and another co-editor, said government agencies demand such precision in the information search that thousands of documents are classified as unavailable or non-existent when requested. Access to government data is essential to the work of so many, such as to Priscilla Rodriguez Bribiesca, an environmental lawyer, who relies on such data in cases involving dams, landfills, and forests.

At a second panel, Federal Institute for Access to Information Commissioner Juan Pablo Guerrero Amparán said private organizations, unions, and state governments that receive federal money are still not transparent and the law should do more to expose corruption.

Budget accountability remains a huge challenge to transparency in Mexico. Fundar Executive Director Jorge Romero León said Mexico's Ministry of Finance releases only limited information about budgetary allocations and has, in fact, regressed in the level of its transparency since the law's implementation. Lacking infrastructure and funds to deal with information requests, government agencies are sidestepping efforts to obtain information.

Libby Haight, a researcher with the Wilson Center and the University of California-Santa Cruz, said the more transparent citizens' rights agencies are, the more likely they will generate citizen demand for legal reforms. Since some information received can be difficult to decipher, she suggested further investment in training, education, and outreach to increase the use and clarity of transparency laws.

Journalism Across the Border
The Mexico Institute, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), and Mexico's Council for the National Prize in Journalism, organized a two-day conference at the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP) in October to discuss challenges journalists face in covering news stories along the U.S.-Mexico border. Editors and senior reporters from print and broadcast media in both countries attended. There was consensus on the need for more balanced and in-depth coverage on border issues to capture the dynamics of the region.

UTEP was a symbolic setting for this conference. Some 72 percent of its students are Mexican-American and 9 percent are Mexican. U.S. Congressman Silvestre Reyes described the border as almost a "third nation," with El Paso as its capital.

In opening remarks, Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan addressed the role of the media in improving mutual understanding and publicizing key issues. On the first panel, moderated by ABC News Senior Correspondent and Wilson Council President Sam Donaldson and Televisa [Mexican television network] Vice President for International News Leonardo Kourchenko, speakers discussed the importance of quality reporting and the dilemmas of the print media's shrinking audience, given the rise of the Internet. Washington Post Managing Editor Phillip Bennett said a newspaper's survival ultimately will depend on whether it produces original content of value, since people turn to broadcast and online media for breaking stories.

Panelists discussed adapting to new media formats, including blogs, podcasts, and news websites with interactive graphics. To compete, many newspapers are focusing on local news and scaling down overseas operations, reporting on "what we can cover best, our local communities," said Dallas Morning News National and Foreign Editor Tim Connolly. Both U.S. and Mexican newspapers and networks have scaled back on foreign correspondents in recent years. In fact, only three Mexican newspapers have correspondents in New York and Los Angeles, despite there being large Mexican communities in those cities.

Other panelists discussed obstacles to publicizing U.S.-Mexican border issues. El Universal Managing Editor Rubén Alvarez said his newspaper, published and distributed primarily in Mexico City, views the border as so distant that even with reporters stationed in a half dozen Mexican border towns, coverage is limited to migration and drugs. American Society of Newspaper Editors President and Al Día Publisher Gilbert Bailón proposed "humanizing" the border coverage, by reporting about how issues such as immigration and drugs affect people. While there is room for improving coverage outside migration, drugs and trade, they remain big issues that cannot be neglected, especially by investigative journalists.

Daily life at the border, particularly the struggles in the post-9/11 security environment, is largely ignored by the national media in both countries. Recent tightening of security has disrupted such border communities as El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, which historically were intertwined economically and culturally, while delays at border crossings affect commuting and commerce. For example, Mexican students who reside in Ciudad Juárez and attend UTEP have to get in line to cross as early as 4 a.m. due to the long delays. Panelist Louie Gilot, a border correspondent for the El Paso Times, recently wrote a four-part piece about the effects of border bottlenecks on the community.

The impassioned subject of immigration was the focus of another panel, moderated by New York Times Correspondent Julia Preston and included Los Angeles Times Correspondent Sam Quinones, Proceso International News Editor Homero Campa, and Wall Street Journal Correspondent Joel Millman. There was a consensus that immigration coverage is inadequate and lacks substance. They stressed the need to look beyond the easy stories about border crossings to more nuanced reporting on how migrants are transforming communities in both countries.

Illegal immigration from Mexico has become a challenging topic for American reporters who have difficulty maintaining a balanced approach in the increasingly hostile environment against immigrants. Reporters often end up mixing news with opinion. Meanwhile, in Mexico, the more anti-American a statement on immigration by a Mexican politician, ("We will destroy the border wall!"), the better chance it has of making the front page. These types of nationalist outbursts sell papers, regardless of whether they accurately reflect the facts.

Communicating in a fair and balanced way how the United States and Mexico deal with shared issues will continue to challenge reporters on both sides of the border.

—Dolia Estévez and the Mexico Institute's Kate Brick contributed to this story.

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