The federal government has fined a critical newsmagazine for submitting false documentation to obtain advertising but the magazine itself and several critics see it as an attempt at intimidation and an attack on press freedom.
The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) warned Friday that the sanction against Nexos sets a “terrible precedent” for freedom of the press in Mexico while its publisher sees it as “another sign of official intolerance to criticism.”
On Thursday, the Ministry of Public Administration (SFP) announced a fine of nearly 1 million pesos (around US $45,000) related to a two-year-old advertising matter. The government also banned federal agencies from advertising in Nexos for two years.
The magazine provided false information to achieve an advertising contract, the SFP said, by altering data to show it was up to date with IMSS employer contributions.
Although the advertising in question was valued at 74,000 pesos (about US $3,300) the SFP calculated the fine based on the fact that Nexos was awarded more than 85 million pesos in government advertising between 2012 and 2018.
In response to the criticism generated by the sanction, the SFP defended its investigation and decision and stated that “it respects absolutely freedom of expression and journalistic work.”
“After so many [directly awarded advertising contracts] it is obvious that they can and should pay the imposed fine,” Public Administration Minister Irma Eréndira Sandoval observed on social media, adding that Nexos should take the two-year ban on government advertising in stride.
“Nexos editors have been one of the strongest promoters and defenders of the minimal state,” Sandoval wrote. “Today they can continue to publish freely their ideas without depending on state funding.”
The magazine says the government has taken a unilateral decision to impose the sanction despite the fact that the 2018 contract was fulfilled to the satisfaction of all parties. Everything was in order, said publisher Héctor Aguilar Camín of the paperwork regarding its contributions.
The magazine also said it has received no government advertising since 2018 when López Obrador took office.
Joining the press association in its condemnation of the punishment were freedom of expression advocates Article 19, the Fundar Center for Analysis and Research and the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. They called the fine “disproportionate and excessive” and a form of indirect censorship.
Aguilar called the sanction “symptomatic of the atmosphere of hostility against critical media that prevails in the government. It is not an isolated event, it is another sign of official intolerance to criticism, to different thinking, to the diversity of opinions, ultimately, to freedom of expression.”
“We are witnessing a symptom of the authoritarian drift of this government against media it does not like, opinions it does not like and even facts it does not like.”
Press association president Christopher Barnes and Robert Rock of the association’s press freedom committee said it was “striking that the measure was taken two years later with a magazine critical of the president, which opens a compass of suspicion as to whether it is an indirect retaliation.”
Rock, who is publisher of the news portal La Silla Rota, called the government’s actions an “act of intimidation or prior censorship, a terrible precedent for freedom of the press in the country.”