It was the worst day for Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president of Mexico.
On Friday, Feb. 11, during his morning news conference at the National Palace, he asked one of his aides to show a graphic on a giant screen with the reputed earnings of journalist Carlos Loret de Mola. That came shortly after Loret de Mola and the organization Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity had reported a possible conflict of interest in the presidential family. Something was wrong, and the president seemed uneasy, putting the personal ahead of the professional.
The graphic had spelling mistakes. Washinton instead of Washington, residente instead of presidente. That suggested it was done quickly and carelessly. It did not identify the source of the information, although days later the president would say that “anonymous citizens” had provided him with the data.
AMLO was not spending his time on the murder rate or Covid or the shaky economy. We were witnessing, live and on social networks, an attack on a journalist who had challenged him. And a president who, for the first time during his three years in power, had lost control of the narrative in his country.
The president has repeatedly denied reports of conflict of interests in his family. “It’s not aimed at me or my children. It is a conservative reaction, a coup, against an effort to affect real change in the country.” His relatives also have categorically denied the accusations.
López Obrador of course has the right to reply, to defend himself and try to prove the information if false or incomplete. And he clearly should finish his six-year presidential term. But what is wrong is to use the resources of the government and his power to attack a journalist with personal information protected by law. That is called abuse of power. Tax experts consulted by the newspaper Reforma said AMLO “violated the secrecy of taxes, which requires government officials to keep tax payers’ information secret.”
In the meantime, AMLO has tried to move the attention away from the controversy by attacking other journalists who question his government, even when the questions – about crime, his handling of the pandemic or the shortage of medicines – have nothing to do with his family or recent issues. This kind of communications technique is not new. It’s known as block and circle. You block or evade an issue and circle around to a different issue.
AMLO has become the master of the technique.
But in the end it always fails. If I’ve learned anything from four decades in journalism, it is that if a ruler tries to avoid an issue and redirect the attention to other things, reporters will insist with even more questions until there’s a clear and convincing explanation. That’s why López Obrador will sooner or later have to answer the questions and not just talk about what he wants to talk about. And if there’s anything that AMLO should know about politics, it is that the only way to deal with a crisis is to confront it, not deny or hide from it.
What’s more, his attacks on the news media come at a horrible time. Since López Obrador took office, 30 journalists have been murdered, according to the organization Articulo 19. If that trend keeps up, it will be the most violent presidential term for Mexican reporters this century.
AMLO’s latest attacks on journalists led the Inter American Press Association to send a letter to López Obrador: “We urge you, Mr. President, to ratify your total commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and to avoid attacks, aggressions and insults that wind up giving criminals a blank check to silence those who denounce the rise of drugs and corruption.”
Recent protests by journalists at the National Palace, refusing to ask questions and shouting “Present!” as they read off the names of journalists murdered in Tijuana, are a reaction to the government’s inability to protect them. And a courageous challenge to presidential power. Something has broken in Mexico.
The problem is that AMLO has failed in his main responsibility as president: to protect the lives of Mexicans. Journalists and non-journalists. Already, there have been more than 105,000 murders during his government. And the job of the news media is to point that out. AMLO does not understand that our job is to counterbalance power. At one point,when he was in the opposition, he was on our side. But no more. What changed was him. I have the vague suspicion that if AMLO was still in the opposition he would be complaining just like we do. But power changes everything.
There were many journalists who harshly criticized the previous governments, and now we have to adopt the same vigilant attitude toward his rule. That is independent journalism. And when AMLO abuses his power, the job of journalists is to report and denounce it. That’s why there was a wave of criticism – even from some of his followers and people who voted for him – when he made public the supposed tax information of a journalist and asked for more private information from the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and the Protection of Personal Data. That was an attempt at intimidation. The Institute rejected his request.
The abuse of presidential powers has plagued Mexican history. The country’s rulers, soon after taking office, become incapable of self-criticism. And López Obrador is no exemption. Perhaps because no one says “no” to them. The Mexican presidency carries a wretched curse that makes its holders believe they are allpowerful.
But just like AMLO wants to change history, we Mexicans also want a change, to keep another president from flagrantly abusing his power. None of us can forget where we come from. We’ve had enough with 71 years of PRI rule, 1929-2000. That’s why the reaction to AMLO’s authoritarian abuses, at least on social networks, has been so massive and encouraging. Democracy has come at a high price for Mexicans, and there’s no longer any space or tolerance for abuses. We all want to protect it.
We are all Mexico.