The Mexican media pledge

The sheer numbers of participants reveals an apparent consensus.

Back in March, owners, editors and journalists from over 40 media groups including over 700 television channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines, gathered to sign a voluntary agreement setting up a series of guidelines in order to cover the ongoing war against organised crime in the country.

Throughout a very formal event at Mexico City's National Anthropology Museum, press officials lined up to sign this unique pledge. The gathering was broadcast live on national television.

The pact -- the Informative Violence Coverage Agreement -- sets out to establish mechanisms to ensure a better protection for Mexican journalists, preserve the anonymity of all victims involved in issues revolving around crime and prevent media outlets becoming involuntary "propaganda instruments" for criminals, mainly by refusing to question or interview them.

The sheer numbers of participants reveals an apparent consensus. It received thumbs up from conservative Mexican President, Felipe Calderón, known to be a regular critic of the coverage of violence by the Mexican media, which he accused last autumn of solely focusing on the "bad" aspects of the country.

Some parts of the agreement should be welcome. Its principal breakthrough came from the decisions that every signing outlet would have to establish a protocol aimed at protecting the lives of journalists. Measures include not sending staff members to recent crime scenes and other dangerous areas, or not signing articles likely to jeopardise their author's integrity.

Many have also praised the initiative to regulate the publication of crude or graphic images depicting murder scenes.

However, one of the stated goals of the pledge has created a controversy which has led some of the country's major newspapers in the country to opt out: it wishes to create "common editorial criteria" which all signing parties should apply when covering violence related stories.

The six-page document then details a series of criteria -- in ten bullet points -- which include: "taking a stand against" organised crime, "explicitly attributing responsibilities", be it to government human rights abuse or to criminal actions, "not interfering in the struggle against delinquency" and "giving information in its right dimension and context".

These arguments did not convince La Jornada, a centre-left daily printed in Mexico City and one of the country's most influential national papers. It published an unsigned, critical editorial soon after the pledge was signed, calling it "an unacceptable renunciation of editorial independence", an attempt at imposing "a sectoral model of uniformity". The editorial went on to criticise the pledge's will to take a clear stance against organised criminal created a "prejudice" which would likely be done "in detriment of the information inherent to the facts".

Speaking to the New Statesman, José Luis Ruiz, editor for Mexico City's El Universal -- a major national, daily paper that agreed to sign the agreement -- praised the pledge's objectives and denies it is in any way intended to standardise the news industry:

"This engagement is aimed at keeping the news central [...], it does not force anyone to adopt one particular type of conduct [...] and we still have a total and absolute freedom when it comes to choosing what content we wish to publish".

Ruiz also argued that the current dangers encountered by his fellow journalists made such an initiative necessary. He argues that criminals "threaten" his colleagues, "sometimes giving them tacit orders as to what they should or should not talk or write about".

The Agreement constitutes the second attempt in a year by outlets of the Mexican media to act against organised crime. Last August, the Human Rights Commission of the northern state of Chihuahua issued a protocol for local journalists. The state's initiative sparked heavy criticism by suggesting the latter should "avoid incisive questions" when facing dangerous situations.

The war on drug cartels and violent gangs has made Mexico one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked the country 136th out of 178 in its 2010 Press Freedom Index, describing the country's situation as "dire". At least 65 journalists have been killed since the year 2000, according to the Mexican Human Rights commission, and several more have been kidnapped. Most of these events take place in the northern states bordering the US where the main trade routes for drugs and weapons are found.

Just weeks ago, two journalists -- one of which was a 20 year old -- were found dead in the north-eastern state of Nuevo León.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.