López Obrador's mañaneras in Mexico a unique form of communication marked by attacks on the press

On Dec. 3, 2018, the newly inaugurated president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, announced that starting at 6 a.m. every day – from Monday to Friday – he would hold a press conference to discuss the most important issues in the country.

From that moment on, the president, usually in the company of ministers or other officials, holds a press conference that can last up to three hours. This way of communication started to be popularized under the name “mañanera.”

“From my perspective, las mañaneras are the cornerstone of the current president's communication,” Francisco José de Andrea Sánchez told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). The doctor in law from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, for its acronym in Spanish) has studied the morning press conferences from an academic perspective.

Indeed, las mañaneras have become the main way that López Obrador communicates with his followers, and have been recognized as a change from previous presidents when giving public statements.

However, some say they have also been identified as favorable spaces for attacking media and journalists, and even for the spread of disinformation.

One of the most recent controversies took place on Feb. 22 when in the middle of the morning the president released private information for Natalie Kitroeff, bureau chief of The New York Times in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. López Obrador read in its entirety a message sent by Kitroeff in which she requested the president's comments for an article she was working on.

The next day when questioned by another journalist about the exposure to which he was subjecting Kitroeff in a country that is particularly dangerous for journalism, the president assured that it was not a mistake, that he would do it again, dismissed the numbers of murders of journalists in Mexico and took the opportunity to attack media outlets and journalists whom he accused of doing journalism in favor of economic and political power.

“You feel hand-embroidered, like a divine, privileged caste, you can slander with impunity as you have done with us […] and one cannot touch you even with the petal of a rose,” López Obrador said on the morning of Feb. 23.

“[I would reveal the number of a journalist again] when it comes to a matter where the dignity of the president of Mexico is at stake. Above that law [Federal Protection of Personal Data] is the moral authority and the political authority. And I represent a country and I represent a people that deserves respect,” the President added.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a statement in which it assured that President López Obrador “must refrain from publicizing the personal information of journalists and respect privacy laws in the most dangerous country for journalists in the Western Hemisphere.”

Correspondents and journalists in Mexico published an open letter in which they asked the president to exercise “his right of reply without putting journalists at risk.”

“I’m so grateful for the solidarity of my colleagues who signed this letter. I feel honored to be able to do this work alongside you,” Kitroeff wrote on her X account after the letter was published.

Mañaneras: a unique “informative-political” exercise

For academic De Andrea Sánchez, the use of direct communications by López Obrador is quite logical taking into account the context in which he came to power.

“Thirty years earlier, [López Obrador] would not have come to power,” De Andrea Sánchez saidtalking about how the president used social networks to win him a place in the presidency. With this, as he explained, López Obrador managed to overcome “the media monopoly.”

And it is for this same reason that the daily press conferences are understood as a way to avoid that same monopoly and the editing that his statements may see after publication in the media, De Andrea Sánchez explained.

In an article from November 2021, De Andrea Sánchez describes las mañaneras as a “sui generis informative-political exercise.”

“If one analyzes the personal political communication models of the presidents of the main democracies in the world today, there is no other current case of a practice with the characteristics of the aforementioned morning informative exercise of the Mexican president,” the article says.

For De Andrea Sánchez, las mañaneras also demonstrate that López Obrador is a “highly educated man” since only a person “with the vast and profound knowledge of the history of Mexico” could offer daily press conferences and to speak spontaneously as he does.

This form of communication dates back to 2001 when López Obrador was the head of Government of the then Federal District. There he began his practice of morning press conferences, BBC Mundo published.

“In general, morning press conferences or mañaneras are a unique exercise given that they do represent a space where the presidency, as well as other government entities whom the president invites, can have in some way a more direct dialogue or contact, through which they set the agenda day by day," Pedro Cárdenas, protection and defense officer of the Article 19 Office for Mexico and Central America, told LJR. “And we must recognize that there is a step forward in the sense that past administrations were practically an information blockade.”

This unique exercise makes López Obrador the first president to offer daily information to journalists. According to voices consulted by BBC Mundo, in the 70s, presidents did not give interviews to the media. In the decade that followed, the leaders spoke yearly with two journalists chosen by their collaborators.

It was President Carlos Salinas who changed these rules and used to answer questions to journalists on his tours of the country. A custom that other leaders followed.

Given this background, López Obrador's proposal was not only attractive but “correct,” Cárdenas said. Javier Garza Ramos, a Mexican journalist and expert in security and protection, agrees.

“It started as an exercise with a lot of promise, a promise of transparency where we hoped that the president would be open and answer questions from the media about important issues,” Garza Ramos told LJR. “But really within a few months we realized that it had become a propaganda exercise.”

Lack of transparency, disinformation and attacks on journalists

Article 19 also began to see some problems with these press conferences. Cárdenas mentions one: the lack of transparency when it comes to knowing who are the journalists who can participate or if repeat participation is allowed.

Added to this is that las mañaneras do not fulfill the expected function of a press conference, that is, answering reporters' questions. According to the analysis of Article 19, it is common for the presidency to answer only those questions that it considers favorable for its administration.

Journalists raising their hands during a press conference, in background the president of Mexico speaking

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a press conference on March 13, 2024. (Photo: Presidency of Mexico)

“On the other hand, if a journalist asks a critical question or one that could be considered uncomfortable by the federal Executive, the response is rather to say ‘you are vendidos (bought), you are planning something against the administration, this is actually an attack,’” Cárdenas said.

Garza Ramos also sees this strategy of ignoring issues that could affect the positive narrative for the administration. For example, he said, the president usually avoids any questioning about the murder of journalists or threats to media outlets in the country.

“He avoided those questions completely, but then he started talking about Julian Assange, how his detention is unjust, how the United States government should drop the charges against him, etc.,” Garza Ramos said. “It fell into a series of contradictions. On the one hand, he stigmatized critical media, independent media, he ignored the issue of violence against journalists, but on the other hand he wanted to appear to be a defender of freedom of expression, but using an example that has nothing to do with Mexico.”

Cárdenas also mentioned the publication of journalists’ private information as a form of attack. In January of this year, for example, the information of journalists who go to las mañaneras was leaked, in an incident that the presidency pointed to as a leak from an official email. The president has also released alleged tax information (income, statements, etc.) of journalists, which the reporters themselves have sometimes said was false.

“The Presidency said that they are doing it because it is a way to defend honor and public power, even indicating that it is above legislation; which is really concerning because it says that the Presidency has not only obtained contacts or information from all the journalists present, but has also threatened that it may be made public later. And that speaks of a position of intimidation of the press,” Cárdenas said.

In the 2023 annual report on violence against the press in Mexico, Article 19 recorded the use of spaces such as las mañaneras to attack journalists. According to the report, the type of violence that journalists experience in general falls into three main categories: “1) intimidation and harassment; 2) the illegitimate use of public power, mainly through stigmatization and judicial harassment; as well as 3) threats in both the physical and digital spheres.” Las mañaneras are in the second category.

The attacks that fall into these three categories represent 58.82% of the total violent events recorded by the organization in the country in 2023.

According to these figures, the Mexican State is the main aggressor of the press, with 287 cases that are equivalent to 51.16% of the total.

“However, as has been the case in recent years, a large part of the attacks documented in the capital come from acts of direct stigmatization by the Federal Executive, mainly from the morning press conferences or mañaneras,” the report noted.

The organization recorded at least 62 cases of stigmatization, criminalization, information blocking and even publication of information without consent during these press conferences.

“It is important to clarify that not all comments are automatically identified as attacks on the press. That is, the public debate where the press is corrected for its errors – because the press also has to work on its protocols, its codes of ethics and its investigations to have well-corroborated investigations – that does not imply aggression,” Cárdenas said. “When is it aggression? When the presidency or any other authority uses the public forum precisely so that when they ask about some information they respond with stigmatization, classifying the press as vendida (bought), as corrupt and so on.”

An issue that also worries Article 19 is the publication of disinformation in las mañaneras. In March 2023, Article 19 published the report “Official (Dis)information and social communication” in which, using requests for information from the presidency, they sought to corroborate statements given by the President during his press conferences or public speeches. They requested information on 34 statements: of the 34, only two statements were corroborated with valid information. For the rest of the statements, the presidency responded either that it did not have the information because it corresponded to another agency, or the information sent was contrary to that given by the President in public.

“Then we have the process of disinformation from the authorities because we can identify that the Presidency of the Republic and other federal agencies share information that has not necessarily been verified. Therefore, there is a failure in their responsibilities as authorities,” Cárdenas said.

Article 19 has also identified governments at the state and municipal level that, following López Obrador's communication strategy, have started with something similar to las mañaneras where journalists and media have also been attacked. This “cascade effect,” as Cárdenas points out, is turning journalists into news. Instead of answering questions, officials often put journalists' private lives at the center.

For Garza Ramos, these years have shown how “useless” las mañaneras are for their initial purpose, rather they are used as a “tool of government.”

La mañanera serves to put a topic on the agenda and many times they can be so frivolous but they absorb a lot of discussion that sometimes we don't turn to see more important things,” Garza Ramos said. “He can spend the whole morning talking […] about something that happened years ago so as not to talk about violent events that occurred that same day in the country or about cases of corruption in your government. The president uses it to divert attention.”

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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