Free political ads needn't be local, network argues

A two-year legal drama with multimillion-dollar consequences for Mexico’s TV Azteca has entered a new phase, with the nation’s highest electoral court ruling that a $10 million fine slapped on the No. 2 broadcaster for not running enough free political spots was too hefty.

Mexico’s Federal Electoral Tribunal, often called the Trife, on April 22 acknowledged that the broadcaster had failed to comply with Federal Election Commission (IFE) guidelines, but ordered the commission to provide a better legal basis for what it said was an excessive fine. The sanction is to be reissued within 30 days.

TV Azteca’s lawyers say this vindicates their assertion that the commission, consisting of political appointees, overstepped its bounds with this latest fine, which asserts TV Azteca failed to air 16,092 free political spots around the country.

The first fines announced early last year amounted to only a couple hundred thousand dollars each, and with unclear guidelines, as well as potentially heavy losses in ad revenue and relatively small fines coming in, the conglom was slow to comply. Now, Azteca has run up $23 million in fines.

“The Trife said it was too much,” says Azteca’s lead counsel Francisco Borrego. “They said it did not comply with the law and with the precepts of the Constitution.”

Borrego noted, however, that a final resolution of the matter was about a year off: The Trife and the IFE must set fair fines for failing to comply with the law, and the way networks divide spots between network and local-affiliate time needs to be determined.

The latter will likely be resolved in a three-judge federal district court, similar to those in the U.S.

The lawyer explained that Azteca believes it is complying with the law, and the problem comes down to the fact the IFE is ordering webs to give up more commercial timeslots than is technically required under the 2008 electoral reform, which made it illegal to buy political TV advertising in Mexico.

Azteca broadcasts on channels 7 and 13 and has some 190 affiliates nationwide.

With the exception of the Monterrey market, most affiliates feature 90% or higher network content, meaning the vast majority of viewers see almost the same programming.

In areas where elections are forthcoming, the law requires 48 minutes of primetime per day be given to free ads from political parties and the government itself. With the country’s rotating system of state elections, there are always elections somewhere in Mexico.

Borrego says the network broadcasts 48 minutes uniformly across its networks nationwide with 30 locally tailored, additional minutes in pre-election areas during local affiliate time.

However, the IFE insists that all 48 minutes should be customized to suit local elections, and that the 48 minutes broadcast nationally fall short.

With about 25 smaller suits now in federal courts at the local market level, Borrego expects the issue to reach the first circuit court in four months before eventually moving up to the district court.

In the meantime, IFE’s attempts to impose multimillion-dollar fines, which Borrego believes is politically motivated, may well be tempered by what he called three or four more rounds of “ping-pong” between the Trife, IFE and Azteca appeals.

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