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Where the Truth Lies: Teachers and the Media in Mexico

Written by Sharon Farley

November 9, 2017

Fake news! The label being pinned on outraged accusations and screamed daily via Twitter is not a new phenomenon, the media has been a propaganda tool since there were newspapers to read and interests to push. It coaxes society’s acquiescence to reforms; workers may resist, but an idea repeatedly ingested via national headlines quickly gains credibility in the public eye. Add a blizzard of information on social media, from innumerable non-validated sources, and the noise becomes overwhelming. An educated reader may question the content, but a less educated public often will not.

Journalists at Risk

So where should the lines be drawn? A free press is crucial in society to hold authority to account. Investigative journalists are the public’s greatest ally, and often put themselves in the line of fire to expose the truth. Few places are more dangerous for digging under the skin of power than Mexico, where photojournalist Edgar Daniel Esqueda became the 11th to be killed this year in October. Impunity reigns, and of the 111 journalists’ murder cases since 2000, 90% remain unsolved.

Whilst journalists run high risks, the media also endangers the public. In a country where 50.6% of the population live below the poverty line, television provides a welcome opiate at the end of the day. Alongside hypnotic ‘telenovelas’, viewers are served news reports from sources that may not operate in their best interests. 

Teacher Strikes and the 2006 Movement

Education has taken centre stage in Mexico’s news for years, particularly the activities of the dissident arm of the national teachers’ union, the CNTE, popular in poorer states. Whilst strikes have been a regular occurrence for decades, media representation of teachers has grown harsher since 2006, when an annual protest in the city of Oaxaca sparked a moment that teetered on the brink of revolution.

After the violent eviction by police of their month-long demonstration in the city centre, teachers called for support from other civil society groups. Within 24 hours their protest became a movement. It took control of local television and radio stations, and even held government officials hostage. Social media roused local residents to take to the streets, and the uprising against oppression held the city centre for almost six months.

Arriving in Oaxaca two weeks into this new rule, I was shocked to find a city of scorched, barricaded street corners and political graffiti. No police were in sight and protestors’ tarpaulin shelters covered the main square. Returning on the tenth anniversary in 2016, the landscape was much the same, only the scorched barricades were missing and dozens of dome tents nestled beneath the tarpaulins. The tension was palpable. 

In 2006, teachers protested over wages and students’ breakfast provisions, by 2016 the focus had turned to the standardised evaluations embedded within extensive reforms launched by President Peña Nieto. Known as the Pact for Mexico, this batch of neoliberal plans, based on OECD recommendations, was signed into law by the country’s three major parties in 2012.

Within the education reforms, teacher knowledge and student learning outcomes are under review. This particular detail raises CNTE members’ concerns and points to the heart of the fundamental issue behind decades of demonstrations; inequality. 

In Mexico 11.3% of schools lack toilets, in Oaxaca this number is closer to 28%. Rural teachers cite severe resource shortages: a lack of materials, equipment and funds, failing electricity cables, buildings in disrepair – the list is endless. Extreme poverty means some students have barely more than a tortilla with a little salt or beans before their hour-long walk to school. As one teacher told me, “Why should my job depend on the performance of children who don’t even have enough to eat, compared with the performance of children from a school in the north?”

The Media Business

Media reports on CNTE activity have filled newspapers and television screens with scenes of burning vehicles, and protestors throwing rocks at police. In addition, low PISA results are a source of national shame, exposés of failing education blame teacher incompetence, and accusations of corrupt union leaders abound.

Primary sources of this bad press are connected to the consortium of businessmen known as Mexicanos Primeros, whose original members include the co-founder of the world’s largest Hispanic media outlet, Televisa, and an advisor to the OECD. Though none are educators, they have commissioned and publicised an emotive documentary and research revealing the failings of the state education system. But what do they have to gain from demonizing teachers?

In addition to concerns over job security, teachers also fear the drive behind reforms is the general privatization of education. Parents are already expected to fund building maintenance and volunteer on school councils, a particularly harsh burden in poorer regions.

In a vastly unequal society the public are happy to applaud any exposure of corrupt officials, whoever they may be. Presenting an image of incompetent teachers, failing students and union leaders motivated by self-interest makes the story easy to swallow, and provides ample justification for private and low-cost providers to supply education needs.

However, the complex web of players who create and control media content, and the influences on those who wrote the recommendations behind the reforms, do not make the headlines.

The public have grown weary of the constant presence of the CNTE, despite knowing conditions in rural schools are dire. Many parents support the teachers’ cause, but disruptive union tactics negatively impact on everyday life in Oaxaca. Conflicting reports and rumours are rife, leaving people genuinely struggling to see where the truth lies. And when evidence is delivered on film via televisions everywhere, who should they believe?

Disinformation has become the political currency of our time, truth-seekers are silenced, fake news is labelled truth, and truth is labelled fake. We need to recognise that the media is not just in the business of reflecting public opinion, but also of creating it.  

Sharon Farley was an intern at LIDC in November 2016.

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