By Nathaniel Parish Flannery, published in Forbes
In the late stage of Mexico’s election, which will be held on Sunday, July 1, young people in the country have rallied together to protest what they see as biased media coverage of the race. Enrique Peña Nieto, EPN, the candidate from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, currently Mexico’s best organized party, has been accused of paying TV broadcasters for favorable coverage. A number of critics have accused Televisa, who is married to a popular former Televisa soap opera star, of providing the PRI’s candidate with favorable coverage. At one anti-Televisa protest, a young woman held up a sign that showed a TV with fangs and a slogan that read “Weapon of mass manipulation.” Another sign said “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” At the June 2 demonstration in front of Televisa’s office, protesters chanted “Democratization of media” and “NO TO MANIPULATION!”
The current protests all stem from a visit by Peña Nieto to the Mexico City campus of Univerdidad Iberoamericana, or “Ibero” as it’s called locally. During his speech one student held up a sign that said “What are your three favorite books?” a reference to a rare unscripted moment in the campaign when the candidate stuttered and stammered and failed to name three books that he had read. Another sign said “SALINAS,” a reference to Mexico’s last old school PRI president, one of several older party stalwarts who are backing Peña Nieto’s candidacy.
Inside the auditorium, a few young PRIistas held up signs in support of Peña Nieto, but outside the scene was more unruly. After saluting the audience, the candidate speed-walked out a back door, jostled amid a group of body guards, while students holding up cell-phone cameras documented his rapid retreat, yelling “IBERO DOESN’T WANT YOU!!!” Packed along the stairways and outdoor corridors of the campus, protestors pumped their fists while chanting “Leave! Leave! Leave!”
As he climbed into his bullet proof SUV, a flustered Peña Nieto, tie and collar still crisp, hair combed and gelled, told a television reporter that the protestors “are not genuine.” Other PRI leaders were more vocal in their criticism of the dissidents, dismissing the student protestors as being “infiltrated,” by grass-roots political operatives from the PRD, militant supporters of leftist candidate Andres Lopez Manuel Obredor, AMLO, who currently trails Peña Nieto in the race for the presidency.
Major media outlets, opted not provide heavy coverage of the Ibero incident. Rebecca Zavaleta who followed news about the incident on social networks explained “we watched the [Televisa] news all day and they didn’t mention it.” Only the station’s late night broadcasts gave a brief mention of the protests. TVC Networks, an independent broadcaster, ran an in-depth segment on the Ibero incident during its evening broadcast.
Rebecca Zavaleta, a recent college graduate, said she first found out about the Ibero Peña Nieto protest about half an hour after it started from her sister who is an Ibero alum. “A bunch of her friends uploaded videos,” she said. Elisa Hernandez said she found out about it from Facebook.
Pena-Nieto’s team attempted to counter the student-recorded videos posted on Youtube and Twitter, producing a slickly edited a video that showed a tranquil university environment, filled with cheering supporters and interlaced with thoughtful comments from young people who said they supported Peña Nieto’s candidacy.
The video, was criticized by Twitter users who added hashtags such as #EPNiberroDoesntWantYou and #PRIisSCARED to their posts. In the days following the Ibero incident, both hashtags became trending topics on Twitter in Mexico. The video “Peña Nieto flees from Ibero” garnered more than one million views in one day. It has now been viewed 1.4 million times and is now preceded by a paid advertisement from the candidate. Peña Nieto’s video, by contrast, has only garnered a few thousand views.
For the first few days following the Ibero incident, the discussion was still mostly isolated to the social networks, the playground of a small fraction of Mexico’s middle class, educated urban youth. TV Azteca and Televisa, the broadcast TV networks that provide most of Mexico’s voters with their political news, still declined to broadcast footage of the hostile student chants at Ibero.
Angered by what they felt was an absence of media coverage and offended by accusations that their protest was the work of leftist activists rather than students with legitimate concerns, one hundred thirty one students, took their message to Youtube and Twitter, broadcasting photos and videos of their student IDs. “My name is Maria Jose Lopez,” one young women in the video says. She then recites her student ID number and says “We’re Ibero Students.” The #YoSoy131 (I Am Number 131) video generated more than a million views on Youtube the first day it was uploaded. Students from all over the city started paying attention. Students from all of the capital’s most prestigious private universities came together to protest the media coverage of the election.
“It’s the first time students from different social classes, from Ibero, from Tec, from UNAM (the city’s largest public university) have worked together,” Rebecca Zavaleta said.
Other young people also wanted to show that there were more 131 students interested in tackling Mexico’s media monopoly. On May 18, several hundred students gathered in front of Televisa’s office in a wealthy neighborhood in the north of the city. “We’re not porros (left-wing agitators) we’re students!” they chanted, holding up signs that said “Yo Soy 132,” (I am number 132), expressing their solidarity with the original Ibero protestors. One protestor held up a sign that asked for “A law to give a final end to the television duopoly.” Other students wore home-made helmets that looked like old fashioned box TV sets.
“92% of Mexicans watch Televisa and only 25% have internet,” Elisa Hernadez, another student said. Televisa alone controls about 70% of the broadcast TV market. When Televisa and TV Ateca both declined to broadcast the first debate on their main channels, one of the only open forums for discussion did not reach a national audience. People in some isolated parts of the country were unable to watch the debate. When the students walked by the Televisa studio, they chanted “These people are the ones who F*** the country,” Elisa said.
At a recent anti-EPN protest in front of the Angel of Independence, a statue in Mexico City, Eliana Palacios, a 28 year old design student grew up in Colombia said “informing yourself is fundamental so they don’t manipulate you.”
“Twitter is fundamental,” she added.
Despite the fervent protests, many Mexicans remain skeptical of leftists candidate AMLO, who has been accused of having his supporters attack EPN under the guise of the #YoSoy132 movement. According to most polls, EPN is likely to win the July 1 election by a comfortable margin.
The New York Times reported that if the PRI does return to power after a 12 year hiatus, it will find itself in Mexico that now grown up and now has “a more questioning press, watchful civic organizations, social media scrutiny and real political opposition.”
Throughout the ups and downs of the election, the PRI ran a tightly controlled campaign. Once elected, Mexico’s public will want more from EPN than slickly edited Youtube videos.
When it comes to holding the new PRI government accountable, there will be an important role for the young people from YoSoy132 to play.