Mexico Moves to Regulate Government Ads. Critics Say It’s a Sham.

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico promised to control heavy government spending on ads, but he has outspent his predecessors.

MEXICO CITY — In the television ad, President Enrique Peña Nieto strolls along a beautiful beach, his bare feet in the crystalline water as he talks about his government’s environmental achievements. The Mexican leader has starred in several commercials as his government has poured $2 billion of public money into advertising that effectively promotes its interests.

In a campaign that aired last year, for example, Mr. Peña Nieto was seen touring an aerospace factory, sharing barbecue with ranchers and talking with residents of a new housing project. Open almost any newspaper in Mexico, and full-page ads laud all the schools rebuilt after last year’s earthquake.

The heavy government spending on advertising, a longstanding practice at both the federal and state level in Mexico, has been heavily criticized for encouraging flattering coverage of officials and quieting their critics.

Now, facing a court-ordered deadline, Mexico’s Congress is ready to adopt legislation it says will regulate that spending for the first time. But opposition parties and citizen watchdog groups say the bill, backed by Mr. Peña Nieto’s party, is a sham.

Jorge Triana, a congressman from the opposition National Action Party, says the measure leaves intact an unwritten rule officials have long enforced with the news media: “I don’t pay you for you to attack me.”

Most news outlets in Mexico rely heavily on public advertising; few would survive without it. That dependence gives officials leverage to push their owners to run favorable stories and stop others from seeing the light of day. Editors and reporters say officials routinely shape the news, telling outlets what they should or should not report.

“The government has its media darlings who act as spokespeople,” said Rafael Hernández, a congressman with the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution. “They reward them with substantial advertising contracts, and they asphyxiate and punish those critical voices who aren’t replicating the official message.”

The ads, while intended to inform people about government services, are often used to trumpet officials’ own interests.

The long-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party pioneered the use of ad spending to co-opt the news media, but the practice continued after the National Action Party won the presidency in 2000. Mr. Peña Nieto promised to control the ad spending when he first took office, but he has ended up outspending his predecessors.

The bill pending in Congress is a response to a Supreme Court ruling last year that ordered lawmakers to regulate the flow of government money so that it is distributed in an unbiased way. The court sided with Article 19, a free-expression group that sued the government over its ad-spending practices, and told lawmakers to pass legislation by the end of this month.

Congress may meet that deadline, but advocates say the measure would do nothing to fix the problem the court identified: Free expression suffers when the government can financially reward or punish news outlets.

Under the bill, the interior secretary would evaluate federal advertising campaigns under the principles of “efficiency, economy, transparency and honesty.” Agencies would also report to the secretary on how their advertising budgets are spent.

Critics say the bill is notable for what it lacks: specific regulations to promote equitable ad spending and spending limits, and enforcement powers to ensure the rules are followed. Instead, they argue, it institutionalizes discretionary public advertising.

“The court was not asking for the formalizing of the status quo — they demanded a change,” said Jan Jarab, the Mexico representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Instead, he said, the bill legalizes “what the court itself called indirect restriction of free expression.”

Supporters of the legislation say it addresses the court’s concerns while giving the government a means to promote its efforts. Setting a spending cap would be counterproductive, they say, because it would encourage agencies to spend up to the limit.

“The government can and should spend less than any fixed percentage — that is why it’s always better to have a flexible regime,” Arturo Huicochea, a congressman with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, said last week.

The Peña Nieto administration spent more than twice its budget in 2016 on public-service ads, according to Fundar, a transparency group that examines government data. Last year, the administration spent as much on advertising, about $500 million, as it did to support students in its main scholarship program for public universities.

For all that spending, Mr. Peña Nieto’s approval ratings are among the lowest since pollsters began taking the measure in the 1980s, a reflection of widespread disgust with official corruption. And as the July 1 presidential election approaches, his handpicked candidate, José Antonio Meade, is in third place.

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