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Taking on the media: Mexico’s unprecedented protests against Televisa

Something unprecedented has been happening in Mexico for the past eight weeks: thousands of students, workers and peasants are taking to the streets to protest the media legitimization of what is believed to be electoral fraud. Unlike traditional social protests directed either at politicians or the political system itself, these protests put the blame in a new active participant, Televisa, the media company that, according to protesters, supports the status quo while denying air time to the public discontent. These marches, borne out of the “Yo soy 132” movement seem to follow a similar organizing pattern to the Spanish indignants and the activism behind the Arab Spring.

The “Yo Soy 132” movement began in mid May as opposition to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and what was perceived as the media’s partisan coverage of the 2012 general election. According to CNN Mexico, on May 11, 2012, the then Presidential Candidate Enrique Peña Nieto held a campaign event at the Ibero-American University. After Peña Nieto’s talk a number of attendees questioned and strongly expressed their opposition to the candidate. Their complains were centered around the 2006 Atenco incident, in which then-governor of the State of Mexico Peña Nieto called in the state police to suppress a protest by local residents. As a result of police action, two protesters were killed. Following up this incident, human rights groups have charged the police with numerous violations during the raids. However, during his presentation at the Ibero-American University, Peña Nieto defended his decision to use force in order to prevent an alleged greater evil. His answer inflamed the students. Media reports downplayed the students reaction and claimed that the students were “infiltrated political forces brought by the opposition”. In turn, 131 students filmed a YouTube video showing their students IDs proving that they were legitimate attendants and not “puppets” as it was suggested by news outlets. The next day, people started tweeting links to the video with the statement “I’m the 132nd student” and the name “yo soy 132” became widespread.

On May 19th the first massive protest took place and the students were accompanied by groups of unionized workers and peasant farmers, who marched under signs accusing Peña Nieto of being unfairly favored by television companies. For the first time, corporate media responsibility was brought at the forefront of political protest. The complicity of media organizations with Peña Nieto’s campaign was exacerbated by the fact that his wife, Angélica Rivera is a big soap opera celebrity, employed by the same media outlets that now stand accused of favoritism and electoral manipulation. Their “camera friendly” relationship included a trip to Vatican City, where Peña Nieto presented his engagement ring to Rivera and Pope Benedict XVI blessed the couple, an event covered in detail by the Catholic country’s tabloids and TV shows.

A month before the election, British newspaper The Guardian published leaked files allegedly proving the connection between media companies and Peña Nieto’s campaign:

Mexico’s biggest television network sold prominent politicians favourable coverage in its flagship news and entertainment shows and used the same programmes to smear a popular leftwing leader, documents seen by the Guardian appear to show.

The documents – which consist of dozens of computer files – emerge just weeks ahead of presidential elections on 1 July, and coincide with the appearance of an energetic protest movement accusing the Televisa network of manipulating its coverage to favour the leading candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto.

When Enrique Peña Nieto won the elections on July 1st, the accusations of electoral fraud were linked to implications of corporate media conspiracies. To make matters even more difficult for the recently elected President, Washington has expressed concern over his potential leniency towards the drug cartels. During the campaign, he promised to gradually withdraw the 40,000 soldiers deployed across the country, replacing them with a national gendarmerie tasked with bringing down violent crime. According to news sources, “American officials fear that in practice this may mean a return to a tacit agreement with the cartels, where their multi-billion dollar narcotics business is allowed to continue to ship drugs to the US in exchange for a reduction in killing on Mexico’s streets”. As is customary with newly elected Presidents, Peña Nieto renewed his cabinet and top administrative positions, effectively replacing security officials from the outgoing administration of Felipe Calderon. Part of the fears in the US are rooted in the elimination of those officials who had developed unusually close ties with US, sharing intelligence and military cooperation. Unlike his predecessor, Peña Nieto seems, for the time being, more keen on looking inwards, to the consequences of the drug cartels in Mexican territory than to the smuggling of drugs through the US borders.

Last Thursday, the students who are part of “Yo Soy 132” staged another 24 hour picket in front of Televisa studios. They insist on pointing to media accountability in Mexico’s elections and their influence on politics and society in general. Televisa offered almost no coverage of the thousands that congregated in front of their building, instead, focusing on the Olympics. When on May 23, “Yo Soy 132” released a manifesto stating their political intentions, they wrote:

First – we are a nonpartisan movement of citizens. As such, we do not express support of any candidate or political party, but rather respect the plurality and diversity of this movement’s participants. Our wishes and demands are centered on the defense of Mexicans’ freedom of expression and the right for information, in that these two elements are essential to forming an aware and participating citizenry. […] Our main concern stems from the current state of national press and media, as well as their political involvement in a democratic context.

While in the UK, a media scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s multinational corporation, News Corp, continues to unfold, investigators point at complicities and involvement of the highest echelons of the British government in phone hacking, spread of misleading or false information and manipulation of the public for electoral gain. Eight people with close ties to David Cameron’s administration stand accused of using media as a tool of deception towards the British people. The similarities between the way Mexican media utilized their power to exert influence over the electorate point to a certain modus operandi, replicated across borders, in which some corporate owned media appears to be part of a systematic effort to maintain and support certain political ideologies in places of power. It is not a mere coincidence that corporate owned media has been under further scrutiny for their apparently biased coverage of the Occupy Movement. Unsurprisingly, News Corp has been repeatedly accused of attempting to delegitimize the movement and contribute to its gradual dispersion.

Martha Munoz, a 19 year old participating in last Friday’s picket in front of Televisa said, “We started as a hashtag and we became a movement. We have thrown a ball up into the air. Now we have to see who catches it.” Just like the Arab Spring inspired the Indignants in Spain, Greece and Italy and, in turn helped spread the Occupy movement in North America, it remains to be seen if these Mexican students will inspire a global protest against the ways that corporate owned media supports governments and political systems that work against the people’s best interests while contributing to the silencing of growing social protests.