Is censorship making a comeback in México?

Francisco Martín Moreno is one of México’s best-known writers, and several of his more than two dozen historical novels have been national bestsellers. So I was surprised when he told me that his latest book – a thinly disguised novel about President Andrés Manuel López Obrador – is not getting any traction.

The novel, titled ‘Ladrón de Esperanzas’ (‘Thief of Hopes’), is about a fictional Mexican president named Antonio M. Lugo Olea. His initials are AMLO, just like those of México’s president.

In the book, his predecessor is another fictional character, Ernesto Pasos Narro. His initials, EPN, are the same as those of former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The book’s cover shows a picture, taken from behind, of México’s real-life AMLO.

The novel’s AMLO is a well-meaning but messianic and somewhat unhinged leader who lies constantly, unaware of it most of the time. These are some of the same things critics say about México’s current leader.

“This is my first journalistic novel written in real time,” Martín Moreno told me. “And I’m having a lot of problems to publicize it.”

He said that he is having a hard time getting journalists to interview him about his new book, in sharp contrast to what happened when he launched previous work.

“I must have sent about 60 letters to radio and TV presenters, and only four or five have invited me to their shows,” he said. “When I wrote my previous book, which dealt with the history of the henequen plant in Yucatan, they swamped me with interview requests.”

Asked if he believes the AMLO government is trying to censor his book, Martín Moreno told me that, “It’s not censorship, but rather self-censorship. Journalists are panicking about this man. Fear is spreading at a phenomenal pace.”

It may be fear of AMLO, fear of his supporters or simply fear of going against the current.

AMLO was elected with 53 percent of the vote – a landslide by Mexican election standards – and his popularity has skyrocketed since. A new poll by the daily Reforma this week shows that he has a 78 percent approval rate, with only 18 percent rating him unfavorably.

During his first 100 days in office, AMLO has, among other things, raised the minimum wage by 16 percent and sharply increased Social Security payments for seniors.

But most economists fear that AMLO’s honeymoon won’t last long, because – as often happens with populist presidents – the economy eventually will fizzle. The International Monetary Fund and most major financial institutions have already downgraded México’s growth forecasts for this year.

Much like President Trump, AMLO routinely attacks the press and derides his critical media as “la prensa fifi,” or “the elitist media.”

In recent days, he lashed out against the daily Reforma, accusing it – falsely – of silencing corruption scandals in the 1990s. Reforma also reported that its main stockholder has been summoned by tax authorities for questioning over a trivial tax bill, in apparent retaliation for the newspaper’s recent investigative reports.

What’s just as troubling, there are well-organized armies of AMLO supporters in social media who routinely attack and intimidate journalists who dare ask hard questions to the president, or who criticize him. A study by México’s Signa Lab media lab confirmed that this week, but said it could not determine whether these social media campaigns are spontaneous or government-directed.

Perhaps as a result of these intimidation tactics, AMLO’s daily press conferences have become a podium for laudatory statements masked as questions. Many of these pseudo-questions are posed by journalists who represent largely unknown media outlets.

All of these are ominous signs for México’s future. If there is a climate of intimidation against critical journalists at a time when AMLO’s popularity is at 78 percent, what will happen when it drops to 30 percent or 40 percent, as it probably will once the president runs out of money to give wage increases?

México still has a significant reserve of courageous journalists, but the danger is that they – and novelists like Martín Moreno – soon might be overshadowed and silenced.

At a time when México’s president has almost unprecedented powers – including a huge majority in Congress – an independent press may be the best hope to preserve a system of checks and balances. Without it, México may soon have an imperial populist presidency.

Andrés Oppenheimer is a Latin América correspondent for the Miami Herald. Send e-mail to: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.