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Journalists at Mexico news agency prepare for third Christmas on strike

When President López Obrador appointed the first-ever woman as director of Notimex in 2019, workers expected positive progressive change. What they got was a despotic leader who pushed editorial falsehoods and created a terroristic work environment.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Journalists and administrative employees of Mexico’s state-owned news agency will soon see another December go by without a Christmas bonus as they round out a third year on strike. 

A group of around 90 unionized Notimex workers, 80% of them women, called a strike in February 2020, and the agency stopped producing news in June of that year. 

Workers claim the professional environment became one of “labor terrorism” after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s appointment of award-winning journalist Sanjuana Martínez as director general, the first-ever woman in the post. 

Although Martínez’s appointment initially encouraged the rank and file at Notimex, many of whom expected progressive change, they instead found themselves in a chaotic and paranoiac work environment in which anyone who failed to toe the line could find themselves unemployed in the blink of an eye. 

“We had high hopes for this administration,” said Adriana Urrea Torres, secretary general of the Notimex workers’ union, who added that she always thought the agency had more potential than it was living up to.

“We said now’s the time for the agency to have a resurgence, to have more impact,” she said. “Sadly it was the complete opposite.”

In an interview with Courthouse News at one of the four sit-ins the union has set up outside Notimex offices in Mexico City, Urrea detailed a work environment in which everything from headlines to employee office behavior was strictly supervised and micromanaged. 

A man experiencing homelessness sleeps below the weathered sign of the Notimex offices in the Mexico City neighborhood of Roma Sur on Dec. 21, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“All the sudden you couldn’t write about certain people or issues,” said Urrea, who worked as a Notimex reporter for 22 years. 

Martínez came into the newsroom with an obvious editorial agenda that Urrea and her colleagues found impossible to follow without compromising their journalistic ethics. Ethics like telling the truth.

At one point during the construction of a controversial mixed-use development that now boasts Mexico City’s tallest skyscraper, Martínez ordered Urrea and others to publish stories of money laundering in the operation without any evidence to support such a claim. 

An editor was able to kill the baseless story before it was printed, “but that was the kind of thing they asked of us,” said Urrea. 

Then came the unlawful firings, 245 of them. Urrea described a workforce racked with stress and paranoia, afraid to challenge leadership or even chat with colleagues in the hall. 

In what may be the most chilling description of the institutional change at Notimex, workers gathering in groups of three or more were suspected of conspiracy against management and made to appear before their superiors to explain themselves. Those whose reasons were not deemed valid were fired. 

Then the agency began to do away with contractually guaranteed benefits. When the workers asked why, they were told it was because of the executive branch’s policy of austerity. The austerity law that has characterized López Obrador’s administration, however, specifically protects collective labor contracts like those of the Notimex employees.

Other times the Treasury Department was to blame. It hadn’t sent the payments. Journalists from the finance section followed up with the federal treasury, which confirmed that no changes had been made in the budgetary allocations it sent to Notimex. 

“So we said this isn’t right,” said Urrea, who saw that the Notimex workers’ union lacked leadership and stepped in to advocate for their labor rights. The strike will turn three in a couple months, and she has not once spoken to or even been in the same room with Martínez, let alone the man with whom the buck stops: López Obrador. 

“The president has always said that the rights of workers and unions aren’t to be touched, but we’re state employees,” said Urrea. “We ask the president: if you promote union freedom and rights, why do you allow leaders of institutions — who are state employees as well — to commit these kinds of injustices?”

Martínez did not immediately respond to Courthouse News’ request for comment.

Any outside observer can see the obvious benefit of a hamstrung Notimex for López Obrador, who sits at the helm of his own personal media empire that produces daily morning news conferences and ample content for millions of followers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and his official website. 

Tarps bearing messages of the Notimex workers' strike fade in the sun at the sit-in outside the Notimex offices in Coyoacán, Mexico City, as the labor action rounds out its third year. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Rather than a news agency staffed primarily with good journalists looking to do an honest day’s work, López Obrador can keep the narrative in control as much as possible with his dedicated media team whose guiding principle is not the truth, but rather the ideas, policies and programs of the president, as well as the frequent invectives against his enemies.

With all this media infrastructure already in place, López Obrador has little desire to do the hard work required to get Notimex operating again, according to Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst and journalism professor at the government-owned think take CIDE.

“They have incurred so many irregularities that it’s going to cost them a lot to actually get it back up and running as it used to,” said Bravo, who added that the president likely doesn’t want to spend any money on issues related to journalists in Mexico.

“Quite to the contrary. He has been very, very hostile against journalists, so it’s only consistent that he has let the most important news agency of the Mexican state to rot,” said Bravo. 

International organizations and foreign governments alike have criticized López Obrador's treatment of the press. In July, a group of 10 U.S. senators called on him to take action to protect journalists. Mexico is regularly listed as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists outside of active war zones.

López Obrador’s appointment of Martínez, who “drove [Notimex] to the ground,” is for Bravo “another instance of institutional destruction that is the hallmark of this government.”

Urrea agreed with that sentiment, calling López Obrador’s policies “an attack” on government institutions in Mexico.

“It’s hard to believe that a leftist government would do this,” said Urrea. “The majority of us on strike right now voted for this administration. And the first thing we got was kicked out of our jobs.”

She ironically sees no institutional desire to resolve these labor conflicts under a head of state whose whole image is based on being a champion for workers and the poor. “We know that all this depends on one person: the president.”

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