In April 1982 then-President José López Portillo ordered all government agencies in Mexico to cancel their advertising contracts with Proceso Magazine. It was well known that López Portillo ran one of the most corrupt governments in the world at the time, but he was tired of Proceso reporters constantly pointing it out. Without the support of government advertising, Proceso was forced to cancel its newly established syndication service, which provided content to over 50 newspapers around the country. The following month López Portillo responded to an editorial that was critical of his decision to prohibit government advertising in Proceso and other opposition media. His legendary line: No pago para que me peguen. “I don’t pay them to hit me.”

Thirty years later and Proceso Magazine is being punished by the government once again for its critical editorial line. In September 2007 the magazine claimed that President Calderon was using government advertising as a mechanism to support media that supported him, and punish those who did not. In 2008 Proceso published a total of just over five pages of government advertising compared to 75.5 in Emeequis and 111.83 in Milenio Semanal.

López Portillo’s legendary response makes clear the direct link between government advertising and freedom of speech, and it has become a rallying call for a new campaign to make more transparent how the government spends taxpayer money on publicity and advertising. The campaign, Official Publicity, is the result of months of investigation by Fundar and Artículo 19. Both organizations filed a number of freedom of information requests to gain access to federal and state-level government spending on PR and advertising. They have uploaded the entire database to a new public website where users can look at the spending of each government agency from 2005 through 2010. Unfortunately, the public-facing database – which is built with DataTables – does not permit users to compare data across years or across agencies in one single table, but I have been told that the entire dataset will soon be made available on Google Public Data Explorer where it can be visualized across a handy timeline. There is also a breakdown of spending per year and per media type that is available on Google Fusion Tables (note that the government does not have a category for online advertising despite a significant presence on web sites like Emeequis and La Silla Rota).

But this campaign is about much more than simply visualizing how the government spends taxpayer money on publicity and media. It aims to inspire an important debate about the role and rules of government advertising in an era where the survival and autonomy of journalism is more fragile than it has been at any point in the last fifty years. To get the discussion off the ground, Fundar and Artículo 19 organized a press conference and debate on Wednesday at Mexico City’s University of Communication.

Fundar’s Executive Director Miguel Pulido kicked off the debate by getting right to the heart of the matter. Turning first to Emeequis Director Igancio Ramirez Renya, Pulido asked, “can independent Mexican media survive without government advertising?” Ramirez dodged the question, or, more accurately, he decided to change it. “The real question,” he said, “is if independent media have a right to accept advertising from the government, and I believe that they do.”

To set some context for readers who are not familiar with Mexico’s media landscape, Emeequis is, in my opinion, one of the best news and current events magazines in the country. Along with Gato Pardo, it is the closest that Americans will come to finding an equivalent to Atlantic Monthly or Harpers. The writing is fresh, the topics are serious, and the editorial design is compelling.

And, as everyone knows, Emeequis would no longer be around were it not for the support of government advertising. Just take a look at their banners directory — practically all of their online advertising comes from government agencies. In other words, tax payers are subsidizing the important journalistic work of Emeequis by financing the advertising for government agencies such as the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED). This is all good. In fact, it is the essence of development communication. Mexicans should be made aware of the activities of their government agencies, and if doing so supports the work of quality investigative journalism, all the better.

A graph of budgeted and spent money on federal advertising and PR from 2005 – 2010. The budgeted amount is in blue, the spent amount is in red.

This is not the kind of “official publicity” that Fundar and Artículo 19 are criticizing. Rather, they are against what Geraldine Juárez has called the “spotisization of democracy.” By this she means a polished, parallel reality, projected by the government and produced by costly communication and PR agencies. You enter this alternative, beer-commercial-like reality every time you open a newspaper or magazine, every time you visit a movie theater, every time you turn on your television or radio. It’s always there: the government telling you, don’t worry, everything is going to be alright, things are getting better, even when they clearly are not. Fundar Executive Director Miguel Pulido put it this way in a sarcastic tweet:

I had a nightmare. I dreamed that we all lived happy lives, with access to health care and plenty of employment. I was living in a government PR ad.

For example:

With each passing month Mexicans increasingly believe that their government is failing in its war on drugs. President Calderon’s response has been to spend an ever-increasing amount of taxpayer money to finance a media campaign to convince his citizens otherwise. Not only are Mexican taxpayers financing a costly war against drug traffickers that has achieved little more than death and displacement, they are also financing a slick media campaign to try to convince them otherwise.

For example:

And then there is another worry, especially now, just a year away from federal elections. Incumbent politicians regularly use government advertising as a mechanism to begin campaigning years before electoral season is officially underway. The most emblematic case is the taxpayer-supported advertising campaign of Mexico State governor and presidential hopeful Enrique Peña Nieto who has hired actress Lucero Hogaza León to star in a bombardment of TV spots praising the governor’s many alleged accomplishments. Even worse is this, clearly part of his presidential campaign, but masked as government advertising that is meant to keep citizens informed:

Such blatant manipulation of government advertising for personal campaigning has inspired Senator Pablo Gómez to propose new legislation that would prohibit the use of government advertising for personal and political propaganda. I have yet to review the proposal in depth, but this could be a concrete objective for the campaign to rally behind before next year’s electoral season.

For now, the #PublicidadOficial campaign is asking Mexicans how they would like to spend the 18 billion pesos ($1.52 billion) that the Calderdon administration has spent so far on government advertising:

Por la Educación, an alliance of NGOs and social groups promoting improved education in Mexico, say that they would build 18,834 public schools: