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Mexico president spars with press corps

May 24, 2019

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been more accessible to the press than any leader in recent times, but he regularly uses his platform to dismiss reporters as agents of Mexico’s elite.

This week, López Obrador referred to the press as “el hampa del periodismo,” or ‘underworld of journalism,’ a dig that came amid questions over his administration’s policies, as they frequently do.

But the president’s most reliable label for the press has been “fifi,” which is slang for elite or frivolous. When one long-time reporter took issue with that term at Friday’s press conference, pointing out that he’d known López Obrador for 30 years, the president tried to place the term in historic context.

He explained that the original “fifis” were the privileged press and elite who drove around in celebration after the torture and killing of President Francisco Madero’s brother Gustavo in 1913.

“It’s not that everyone (in the press) should feel that they’re fifi, only if they have that conservative thinking and those attitudes,” López Obrador said.

The barbs, broadcast through the country’s loudest megaphone, hit a domestic press corps that for years has understandably felt under assault. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters, with six killed just since López Obrador took office on Dec. 1, according to New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Last week, various freedom of expression advocates, including CPJ, signed a statement marking the second anniversary of the murder of renowned crime reporter Javier Valdez, expressing their concern for hostile attitudes toward the press and López Obrador’s tendency to dismiss critical voices.

But on Friday, the discussion opened anew with the publication by newspaper Reforma of an incomplete list of news outlets and journalists who received payments from the government during the previous administration.

In Mexico, newspaper operating budgets often rely on government advertisements, which have historically been allocated as a result of political leanings.

López Obrador said he had reduced these ad buys from about $525 million in the final year of his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto to about $210 million this year. When one reporter asked why he would not just eliminate them entirely, however, López Obrador said the government had a need and a right to get its message out.

He pointed out that there was nothing illegal about the payments, though he alluded to some journalists who have side businesses who received government money as well.

The president also said he provided the information to the country’s transparency agency in response to a public records request, and his press secretary Jesús Ramírez clarified that a complete list would be forthcoming. Some of the country’s largest outlets were noticeably absent from this release.

But López Obrador’s latest verbal shots still came as a surprise, even as some defended him for complying with an information request and praised him for increasing face time with the public in the first place.

Typically, López Obrador holds a news conference five days a week beginning at 7 a.m. in the national palace.

Sometimes, he opens by touting a government program before moving into a question and answer session. Microphones are passed as he stands alone at a podium for about an hour and calls on reporters.

Whether the president answers a question directly or uses it as an opportunity to assail his predecessors or exalt his own government remains at his discretion. But he often seems to genuinely enjoy the exchanges — equally comfortable parrying pointed questions or lecturing on moments in Mexican history.

As his relationship with the press became increasingly complicated on Friday, however, he appeared to offer reporters an olive branch.

“You aren’t fifis, you are professional, honest reporters,” he said.

Then the leftist president and proud defender of workers urged the reporters before him to form a movement to raise their meager wages.

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