Mexico’s controversial but still popular president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has a contentious and uncomfortable relationship with his country’s journalists. He appears to rebuff the notion that the media can help establish a groundwork of facts that citizens can use to appraise the government’s performance. Lopez Obrador’s brand of populism is inherently hostile to the media. He asserts that his predecessors and political rivals are incorrigibly corrupt and that the era of corruption in Mexico ended with his arrival in office. One of his most-repeated adages is “we are not the same.” Journalists threaten his narrative.
Lopez Obrador is an effusive orator who seeks to establish a direct relationship with voters through daily press conferences and public appearances. He ignores studies that show that Mexico sits among the worst-hit countries in the world both in terms of the overall toll of excess deaths recorded during the pandemic and the per capita rate of excess deaths during the pandemic. He insists that the pandemic hasn’t been so bad in Mexico. During a recent press conference, Lopez Obrador falsely claimed, “Mexico is one of the countries with the least deaths per capita. Radio commentators are lying, distorting things.” Confronted with news that Mexico’s economy is stalling and predictions of anemic growth in 2022, Lopez Obrador promises that the economy will grow at 5% this year. He shuns professional economists and their technical macroeconomic forecasting techniques. “I’m optimistic,” he said. With over 100,000 murders recorded between 2019 and 2021, crime statistics show that the first three years of his term were the most violent three years any president has presided over in modern Mexican history. But, Lopez Obrador repeats the message that the situation is improving and that his strategy is effective. “We’re going to show that it works,” he promised.
What is disheartening, however, is that along with Lopez Obrador’s unwavering optimism and enthusiasm for embracing alternative facts, is a penchant for attacking anyone who criticizes or contradicts his ruddy assessment of Mexico’s current trajectory. As a rule, Lopez Obrador categorizes efforts to expose corruption, hold his government accountable, or fact-check his declarations as “attacks” rather than as the core work that journalists perform in a functioning democracy.
Lopez Obrador has claimed he is “the most attacked president in the last 100 years.”
“Every day there are attacks,” he complained.
However, given the mortal danger that journalists face for doing their jobs in Mexico, it seems perverse for Loprez Obrador to refer to the media’s criticism and analysis as “attacks.” After all, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based non-profit, calculates that 85 journalists were murdered in Mexico between the start of 2019 and the end of 2021, during Lopez Obrador’s first three years in office. Four journalists were killed during January, 2022.
In early 2022, while journalists across Mexico have attended protests to demand better protection from threats and violence, Lopez Obrador has continued to lambast the media.
“There are very few journalists who are complying with the noble vocation of informing. We have to be vigilant [and] show them to be biased, a sell-out press who work for a greedy minority,” he said.
Lopez Obrador has repeatedly mentioned certain journalists and newspapers by name, and accused them all of being “conservatives,” a catch-all term he uses to describe anyone who fails to fully endorse and embrace his movement. Recently confronted with an uncomfortable report exposing a conflict of interest involving his son he was quick to dismiss the columnist behind the story as a “corrupt, hit-job journalist, [a] mercenary without principles.” A few days later, he called out celebrated investigative reporter Carmen Aristegui and accused her of being against him and “in favor of the conservative block.”
Lopez Obrador’s party has also published propaganda accusing an individual public policy expert of sabotaging Lopez Obrador’s flagship energy reform. Mexico’s president’s morning press conferences feature a recurring segment called “Who’s Who of Lies” which names and shames individual reporters for their work.
The press freedom advocacy group Article 19 and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have asked Lopez Obrador’s government to stop publicly criticizing individual journalists and making accusations that the media is publishing fake news.
After all, in 2020 more journalists were killed in Mexico than in any other country in the world. According to a report by Global Witness, an NGO, in 2020 Mexico was second only to Colombia in terms of the number of human rights defenders and environmental activists who were murdered within its borders.
Even at a time when Mexican media outlets are focusing their coverage on the dire threats journalists face while working, Mexico’s president won’t put his penchant for pillorying the press on pause. Lopez Obrador’s hostility towards the media is not a quirk that undermines an otherwise progressive agenda. Like Donald Trump in the U.S. and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Lopez Obrador embraces the tactics of authoritarian populism. Like other leaders with authoritarian tendencies, he constantly seeks to paint all of his critics as a monolithic group of corrupt elites. His highly polarized discourse leaves little room for dissent.
Lopez Orbrador insists again and again that his government is not the same as the administrations that preceded him. But, like his predecessors he’s facing disappointing economic growth, an alarming wave of violence, and ongoing allegations of high-level corruption. When Mexico’s reality seems so disappointing, Lopez Obrador chooses to insist that his critics are wrong, that the data is misunderstood, that the actual trends are more positive than most people believe. Attacking the press is a central element to his agenda. If he can discredit the media, he always has an argument ready to dismiss any particular critique.
Recently he rejected the notion that his rhetoric towards the media might empower and encourage violent actors who want to silence their own critics. “It’s a speculation [that] I’d say is incorrect. There’s no connection,” he said.
He also insists that the uproar about the recent spate of murders of media workers is just one more tactic by his enemies to undermine his government.
“Our adversaries take advantage of everything to attack us, but in reality, at the root, they aren’t sincerely worried about the loss of human life. What they look for always is to take advantage to affect us because they are very perverse,” he said.
On February 6, 2022 another media worker was killed in Mexico. Again, Lopez Obrador pointed to coverage of the murder as evidence that the press is attacking him.
Lopez Obrador has already reached the halfway point of his six-year term in office. His achievements so far have been underwhelming. Recent polls show that respondents who think Mexico is heading in the wrong direction outnumber their more optimistic compatriots. It doesn’t seem likely that Lopez Obrador will catalyze a transformational spurt of economic development, find a way to mitigate the current wave of violent crime affecting Mexico, or build up Mexico’s institutional capacity for fighting corruption. It also doesn’t seem likely that he’ll modify his hostile rhetoric towards the press. Bereft of meaningful achievements, Lopez Obrador will keep working to discredit and dismiss his critics in the media.