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For media covering Mexico's AMLO, access comes with attacks

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Mexico City (AFP)

Mexico is one of the world's most dangerous countries for the press, and now journalists face a new risk: insults and attacks from leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The populist leader known as "AMLO" took office in December promising "radical" change -- and looked set to deliver it, at least in his relations with the media.

Whereas his predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto, almost never took questions from journalists, Lopez Obrador, 65, holds a press conference at 7:00 am every weekday.

The access at this "early riser," as the press conference is known, is so unfettered that a journalist once climbed up on the dais with the president to debate homicide statistics with him face to face, unhindered by bodyguards.

But Lopez Obrador has also turned the widely watched press conferences into a platform for launching smears and veiled threats against reporters and media outlets that rub him the wrong way.

His favorite insult for media he takes exception to is "fifi," which roughly translates as "hoity-toity."

He does not shy from calling out media organizations by name. For instance, he regularly attacks Reforma, one of the country's leading newspapers, once insisting it reveal its sources on a story he disliked -- despite a Mexico City law protecting the confidentiality of journalists' sources.

Lopez Obrador's sometimes hostile approach to the press has been compared to that of US President Donald Trump.

"This is something that exists not only in Mexico, but also in the United States, or to cite another example, Venezuela -- this tendency to smear the media when they are critical of those in power," said Balbina Flores, country director for Reporters Without Borders.

But in Mexico, verbal attacks on journalists are an uncomfortable reminder of the physical attacks they also face.

Lopez Obrador's statements have sometimes been laced with ominous warnings.

"If you cross the line, you know what happens to you. It's not me, it's the people," he once told journalists.

- 'Free rein' -

Reporters indeed know all too well what can happen to them when they ask too many uncomfortable questions in Mexico.

The country is the deadliest in the world for journalists so far this year, with six murdered since January, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The watchdog regularly ranks the country among the most dangerous for the press, along with war-torn Syria and Afghanistan.

More than 100 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000. The vast majority of those crimes remain unpunished.

"The president's stigmatizing language sets the tone and emboldens those who want to attack the press," said Ana Ruelas, Mexico director for the media rights group Article 19.

"In an environment of so much impunity, where anyone who wants to attack the news media has free rein to do it... we think this is going to generate violence by individuals and groups looking to intimidate," she told AFP.

- Army of bots -

The hostility has spread to social media.

Journalists who put tough questions to Lopez Obrador regularly receive a flood of insults and threats from his supporters on social networks.

"The more uncomfortable your question is, the more they threaten you," said one reporter, speaking on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

She received death threats on her personal Facebook account after asking a question at the morning press conference.

Many of the negative comments come from coordinated networks of "bots," or automated accounts, according to a study by ITESO university, in the city of Guadalajara.

"Then real people join in, and they're the ones who track you down on your personal social networks," said the reporter interviewed by AFP.

Presidential spokesman Jesus Cantu denied Lopez Obrador or his team have used bots, and defended the president's statements against the press as free speech.

"When he disagrees with a particular media outlet, it's not because he's against them or against criticism. It's because he has a difference of opinion, and it's good to get that out in the open and address it," he said.

He said the administration condemns "any kind of harassment" or "verbal violence" against the media.

But the free speech argument does not convince everyone.

"This is something else," said media analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor.

"This is an attempt to undermine the credibility of media that don't share his views."

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