Last week, during an interview, journalists asked Mexican writer and editor Paco Ignacio Taibo II, who heads Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Económica, a publicly funded publishing house in charge of one of the most influential catalogues in the Spanish-speaking world, about Letras Libres and Nexos, Mexico’s most renowned political magazines, which had recently been baselessly accused of corruption by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. (Full disclosure: I sit on the Letras Libres editorial board. Enrique Krauze, the magazine’s editor in chief, is my father.)

Taibo responded with a thinly veiled threat: “I would suggest they stay put in their little corner, or better yet, move to another country,” he said. Asked whether the magazine editors should take his words as an act of intimidation, Taibo chuckled. “Oh, no,” he said. “It’s just brotherly advice.”

The warning was both ominous and chilling, especially coming from Taibo, whose own family sought refuge in Mexico after fleeing Spain in the 1950s. But it is hardly unprecedented. In fact, Taibo’s aggressive warning for the president’s most outspoken critics to keep quiet or leave — both Nexos editor Héctor Aguilar Camín and Enrique Krauze have been critical of the president — is part of a pattern of increasing intolerance and suppression of critical journalism and thought fostered directly by López Obrador himself.

Two days before Taibo’s comments, Mexico’s president had used his morning news conference to personally reveal government advertising contracts Nexos and Letras Libres received in previous administrations. With the help of presidential spokesman Jesús Ramírez, López Obrador ran through 12 years of government advertising in both magazines. Neither the president nor his spokesman offered any further context. They did not produce proof of any pernicious effect the government’s advertising had on the magazines’ editorial independence. (There is none.) Conveniently, they also forgot to make clear that the contracts were all fully legal. While its merits can certainly be debated, government advertising is legal and legitimate in Mexico. López Obrador did find time to elaborate on the corrupt motivations of his critics. “[Krauze] was against real change,” he said. “He called me ‘the Tropical Messiah’ and now he is very angry because his magazine was subsidized by the government.

For the record, neither magazine was ever “subsidized by the government.” Before López Obrador, government advertising was only a fraction of Letras Libres’s income. The magazine is published regularly to this day, as is Nexos, both devoid of any federal government advertising since 2018. The López Obrador administration, it should be noted, has not ended the practice of government advertising, investing handsomely in newspaper La Jornada, for example.

What truly bothers López Obrador, and fellow travelers such as Taibo, is the frequent criticism of the president and his policies that Nexos, Letras Libres and others publish, in full exercise of their journalistic capacities and the country’s remaining freedom of expression.

López Obrador’s rants against independent journalistic outlets extend beyond these magazines and their editors. Just two days after his tirade against Letras Libres and Nexos, López Obrador once again used his morning news conference to go after Reforma, one of Mexico’s most influential newspapers. “Look at Reforma,” López Obrador said. “Such a filthy rag.” López Obrador brought up the day’s front page. What bothered him was a story on alleged corruption in his home state of Tabasco, benefiting the president’s family. “This is a classic case of the journalistic mafia,” he said.

Over the last couple of years, news outlets have frequently faced the president’s wrath, as have individual journalists. The reporter Carlos Loret de Mola (also a Washington Post Spanish-language opinion contributor) recently revealed recordings of the president’s brother, Pío López Obrador, allegedly receiving illegal campaign contributions for Morena, the president’s party, in excess of $90,000 delivered in cash. Instead of addressing the allegations, López Obrador once again went after the messenger. He accused Loret of “attacking” him and demanded the journalist disclose the finances of LatinUS, Loret’s online news platform. “Who pays for it?” López Obrador said, smirking.

After some of these invectives against critical journalists or publications, López Obrador usually tries to moderate his intolerance, arguing that his intention is not to censor his critics but rather to exercise his right to reply to accusations. “We will not repress anyone. There will be no censorship,” López Obrador likes to say. This is pure demagoguery. The relationship between the powerful and the press is not symmetric. López Obrador’s bully pulpit is no match for the resources of his critics or the journalistic watchdogs who investigate his administration.

The president of Mexico should know that his words and example matter. When he uses the power of his office to defame critics and journalist alike, López Obrador sets a dangerous precedent. Taibo has already shown what intolerance Mexico’s president has bred. History shows the step that comes after threatening to throw critics out of the country that’s rightfully theirs is something far more sinister. Mexico, and its president, should avoid it at any cost.

Read more:

Leer en español: