The Media as an Ally in the Fight Against Tax Privileges

Author(s): Iván Benumea and Mariana Gurrola
Date: October 5, 2021
Country: Mexico
Language(s): English

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Fundar, Centro de Análisis e Investigación A.C. (Center for Analysis and Research) is a civil society organization based in Mexico City that, among other activities, promotes redistributive and transparent fiscal policy. Despite the technicalities, discretion and political capture that characterize the tax system in Mexico, in September 2019 Fundar managed to access information on the taxpayers who were forgiven multimillion quantities in taxes.

Under the excuse of supporting the family economy and economic development, for many years the Mexican government had discretionally implemented massive tax forgiveness programs that benefited the most powerful corporations in the country and individuals from the political, business and entertainment world. For almost ten years, Fundar took various legal actions to show how the political class privileged the few. As a result of our actions, tax forgiveness is no longer a totally secret issue, and today there are more constitutional locks that will prevent this practice from continuing.

To facilitate the understanding of our fight, this article will explain how we managed to position negative aspects around tax amnesties on the public agenda and who were the great winners of these practices during the previous presidential terms.

Under the excuse of supporting the family economy and economic development, for many years the Mexican government had discretionally implemented massive tax forgiveness programs that benefited the most powerful corporations in the country and individuals from the political, business and entertainment world. For almost ten years, Fundar took various legal actions to show how the political class privileged the few. As a result of our actions, tax forgiveness is no longer a totally secret issue, and today there are more constitutional locks that will prevent this practice from continuing.

Finding a balance

The slogan “Tax Privileges: Inexplicable benefits for the few” was the result of many internal discussions to find the balance between a powerful message that would appeal to the indignation of the people as well as the technical aspects and peculiarities around the forgiveness of taxes. The term “Tax Privileges” (Privilegio Fiscal) had already been used by various actors in some Latin American countries to refer to benefits or advantages in tax systems. For example, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of Mexico since 2018, used this term throughout his 2012 presidential campaign, while some organizations such as the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies and Oxfam International had begun to use it since at least 2009 and 2015, respectively.

At Fundar we took up the concept to support the debate, but we chose to use it to emphasize that tax waivers had favored just a few companies and individuals. Furthermore, since there was no public information to justify the relevance of these policies, we decided to focus on the fact that it was impossible to find an explanation for the fact that it was benefiting the richest taxpayers in the country. These considerations are very important in order to understand the choice of our campaign slogan, since from another (less negative) perspective, the tax forgiveness policy had also benefitted small and medium taxpayers, and sometimes even populations affected by natural disasters. Despite these circumstances, the reality is that our history and institutional struggle weighed more, and tipped the balance towards the public denunciation of tax privileges for the few.

In terms of choosing an audience, the discussion was not so complex, as we knew the results of our investigation would draw the attention of taxpayers who are used to paying their taxes on time, and, therefore, would be outraged by the tax forgiveness that large companies in our country had received.

Impact in the media

After defining our audience, we gave ourselves the task of thinking about the best possible ways to communicate such a technical subject in a way that would be simple and accessible. This implied simplifying our messages without neglecting technical terms, and adapting them to the type of products suitable for social media: animations, infographics, post cards and gifs, a format that in 2016 was just becoming popular. Naturally, all of our products required a graphic identity for the project that would be attractive and would reflect our institutional identity. That is why, instead of using green to represent money and the economy, we used a shade of blue that referenced the identity of Fundar and a shade of yellow to represent the luxury and privilege that gold symbolizes.

One of our main products was the creation of the microsite privilegiosfiscales.fundar.org.mx. Here, users could access the most striking findings of our investigation and directly search for the names of the taxpayers whose tax debts had been forgiven. The microsite also included data visualizations and videos in which “influencers” from social media participated. Since 2016, the microsite has had several updates and has been the most visited in Fundar’s history.

In 2016, after the release of the report “Tax Privileges: Inexplicable benefits for the few”, the use of the concept and the hashtag #PrivilegiosFiscales was used by organizations, public officials and opinion leaders, reaching national media such as ExpansiónAristegui NoticiasEl EconomistaMilenio, and El Universal. As part of our first public launch, we also made an alliance with Sin Embargo, one of the most visited news sites in Mexico.  While we drew attention to the negative aspects of tax amnesties, Sin Embargo spent many months delving into the list of beneficiaries to finally publish a series of reports that evidenced the links between the political and business classes. This strategy allowed us to increase the visibility of our fight without necessarily mentioning the people and companies that received tax debt forgiveness in the period from May 2015 to September 2016.

However, it was not until a second part of the campaign, in 2019, when the use of the term “tax privileges” became much stronger, with the publication on October 1 of the data of the people who had benefited from tax privileges in the period from 2007 to 2015. The hashtag #PrivilegiosFiscales became a trend, positioning itself as a “Trending Topic” on Twitter in Mexico City. The following day “Fundar” and other associated concepts such as “PerdonaSAT” (referring to Mexico’s Tax Administration Service (SAT)) and “Calderón” (the former president of Mexico in whose presidential term taxes had been forgiven), were Trending Topics, as well as other names of people whose information had been published.

The historic response and impact on the media and public opinion placed tax justice on the front pages of the national newspapers with the greatest circulation such as Reforma, El Universal, Excélsior, as well as international media such as the BBC, CNN, Telemundo, and El País. On this occasion, we created an alliance with the digital, radio and streaming media outlet, Aristegui Noticias, of the journalist Carmen Aristegui, who, being one of the most credible media outlets in Mexico, helped to position the issue, making a series of notes delving deeper into the structural problem surrounding tax benefits, as well as the unions that had benefited over the years. Likewise, interest in the issue became deeper thanks to the fact that opinion leaders and politicians such as Ricardo Raphael, Salvador Camarena, Diego Fernández de Ceballos, among many others, added their voice to the conversation. Fundar was interviewed 60 times by different media outlets, and 40 of these interviews were for radio and television. The coverage in the media reached publications specialized in financial, political, and other relevant issues, in addition to reaching outlets that carry out investigative journalism, and specialized media on sports issues such as ESPN. There was also coverage in social and tabloid media outlets, such as TvNotas, because the people who had appeared on the list included famous Mexican singer Juan Gabriel and the cast of the musical group Timbiriche, therefore the news crossed various spaces of public life and reached diverse audiences.

Unlike our first public launch we knew that the media impact of the new data published in October 2019 was practically guaranteed, and that we would reach different types of media. Our project would reflect on how the tax system is used by large corporations and extremely wealthy individuals, as were the international cases of the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. For that reason, one of our main objectives was to ensure that Fundar’s work over so many years was recognized, which was more feasible to achieve if the SAT itself publicly recognized, while sitting beside us, the long road that we had traveled. Thus, after various dialogues, on October 1, 2019 we held a press conference together with the SAT and Joel Salas, representative of the National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information and Protection of Personal Data, the highest transparency body in the country. It should be noted that both institutions did not adopt the slogan of our campaign as such, but they did publicly support the idea that transparency of information was a fundamental step towards a fairer tax system.

Final comments

The tax privileges were nothing more than state support in favor of the wealthiest taxpayers in the country. When we began this project, we knew that tax privileges had caused significant damage to our public finances but we did not have complete information on who had benefited. Based on this logic we proposed to begin a strategic legal dispute to access the information and therefore have more information to publicly denounce the negative impacts surrounding the massive tax pardons. The fight was worth it. On March 6, 2020, six months after gaining access to the information, Mexico’s Congress approved a constitutional reform to prohibit discretionary tax forgiveness.

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AUTHOR INFORMATION

Iván Benumea 

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Iván Benumea is the coordinator of the Fiscal Justice program in Fundar. He is a lawyer and a specialist in tax policy and its link with human rights.

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Mariana Gurrola

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Mariana Gurrola is the coordinator of the area of ​​Communication for Advocacy in Fundar. She is a social communicator focused on creating campaigns for the defense and promotion of human rights.

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