A large Mexican television network is wagering that more of its viewers will watch a soccer match than the May 6 presidential candidates’ debate. And the media managers might well be right. But TV Azteca’s announcement that it would broadcast the Tigres-Morelia game instead of the first televised showdown between Mexico’s four presidential contenders provoked a storm of criticism and demands that the Interior Ministry force one arm of the country’s private television duopoly to act in the public interest. TV Azteca is owned by Ricardo Salinas Pliego, a billionaire who has emerged as a member of Forbes’ exclusive list.
Leaders of the Progressive Movement, the three-party center-left coalition that is fielding former Mexico City mayor and 2006 presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for president, sent multiple letters to Interior Minister Alejandro Poire this week demanding that he invoke Article 62 of the federal radio and television law which grants the government power to order the broadcast of critical information to the public.
“All the radio and TV stations in the country shall be obligated to link up when it involves broadcasting information of overriding importance to the nation, in the judgment of the Interior Ministry,” read a letter signed by Progressive Movement leader Epigmenio Ibarra and dozens of other concerned citizens.
In a less polite poke, the hactivist group Anonymous claimed that it attacked and disrupted the Salinas-owned Banco Azteca’s website in retaliation for the Monterrey magnate’s blackout of the upcoming debate, the first of several expected encounters between the four candidates. The clandestine group also urged a boycott of Salinas’ numerous enterprises. Salinas’ firms include Banco Azteca, which caters to low-income customers, and Elektra, the huge department chain that serves a similar socio-economic demographic.
In response to the Progressive Movement demand, the Interior Minister declined to intervene and deferred the matter to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), the national body charged with organizing and overseeing the July 1 elections for president and congressional representatives.
Mexico’ main political actors quickly lined up on one side or the other of the TV Azteca controversy. Jorge Carlos Ramirez Marin, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) representative to the IFE, said the television networks could broadcast what they saw fit. Forcing citizens to watch a debate smacked of authoritarianism, he said. On the other hand, conservative candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota and her National Action Party (PAN) joined the left-leaning critics.
Billionaire Salinas initially dismissed his critics as “authoritarian little groups.”
The PRI’s Juan Carlos Ramirez added that his party had previously warned about scheduling a debate for a Sunday, a day when Mexican television is accustomed to broadcasting high-interest sporting and entertainment programs that bring in rivers of ad revenue, would run into trouble. Organized by the IFE, the debate is scheduled for Mexico City’s World Trade Center on Sunday evening.
IFE President Leonardo Valdes attributed the hullabaloo to the dissatisfaction of TV Azteca and other large networks with the 2007-2008 political reform, a central part of which prohibited the selling of campaign spots and knocked a big cash cow off the field.
In the days leading up to the controversy, the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics released a poll that showed only about 18 percent of Mexican adults had a “big” or “very big” interest in politics while the remainder of respondents expressed no or moderate interest in political affairs.
Valeriano Ramirez of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s school of political and social studies interpreted the poll as another indication in an ongoing crisis of political legitimacy arising from voting outcomes which are not respected. Consequently, “disenchantment” and “disillusionment” infect the body politic, Ramirez said.
In the big picture, the soccer versus politics dispute occurred in a political transition year when Mexico is still immersed in narco-related violence that’s claimed more than 50,000 lives since 2006, when the once-reliable safety valve of emigration to the U.S. has all but shut down, when workers’ wages continue to seriously lag behind the galloping cost of living, and when the decades-old federal budgetary mainstay of oil production is trickling to an end, perhaps within a decade according to some reports.
Lopez Obrador’s partisans charged that TV Azteca’s debate posture was one more advance prop in the presidential seat for PRI-Green Party candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, who has long been accused of enjoying undue promotion by the two top television networks which remain the source of information for most Mexicans. Reflecting a volatile electoral landscape, long-proclaimed front-runner Pena Nieto has shown some slippage in recent polls.
On Thursday, May 3, the IFE’s leadership council declined by a vote of 7-2 to lobby the Interior Minister for a national link-up of the networks so the debate could be uniformly broadcast throughout the country.
The majority of IFE councilors supported the position that the current electoral law does not give them the authority to force media networks to broadcast a debate. The Progressive Movement-affiliated Party of the Democratic Revolution asked the federal electoral court to overturn the vote, but the appeal grew moot when IFE conversations with TV Azteca apparently paid off to some degree. Late on May 3, an IFE official declared that the Salinas-owned media company would broadcast the debate on Channel 40, one of the network’s minor channels with less-than-national coverage.
“This was an example of a step ahead in the most convenient way, because it contributes to the exposure of this important event in the broadest possible way,” said Sergio Garcia Ramirez, president of the IFE’s debate commission.
Meanwhile, TV Azteca rival Televisa plans to broadcast the political exchange on a secondary channels the network nonetheless claimed had the potential to reach 96,320,000 Mexican viewers. Reaching out to cyberspace, the IFE intends to transmit the debate live on YouTube.
The soccer-debate flap came at a pivotal moment in the Salinas business empire. In April, Salinas and company reportedly laid out $780 million to purchase Advance America, a U.S.-based payday loan and financial services company. Salinas’ previous stabs at the U.S. market have included a $40 million investment loss in Circuit City, the electronics retailer that went belly-up in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, and a $7.5 million settlement with the Securities Exchange Commission over a matter involving a subsidiary of TV Azteca, which enjoys a U.S. presence.
On another frenzied campaign swing across Mexico, Lopez Obrador contended that the TV Azteca episode merely confirmed that his nation’s media giants are not “the fourth estate” but the real power in the country. “They are the ones that rule the country,” the two-time presidential candidate said in Baja California Sur. “They want to impose Pena Nieto through publicity and marketing without having information available to the citizens.”
Kent Paterson edits Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news, sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico.