If Andrés Manuel López Obrador has changed anything, it's that the Mexican president is now expected to show his face to the public on a regular basis. AMLO, as he is known, is perhaps the only president in the world who holds a news conference every working day, Monday through Friday. For over an hour, he answers journalists' questions without censorship or restrictions, introducing his agenda for the coming news cycle.
That's why I recently went to one of these morning conferences. I don't understand why more journalists in Mexico, particularly AMLO's critics, don't take advantage of these opportunities. Such access would have been unthinkable under past Mexican presidents.
Violence remains the most serious problem facing the country. Over 128,000 people were murdered during the six-year administration of AMLO's predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto; 104,000 were murdered under Peña Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderón. The killings haven't stopped under López Obrador. According to the government's own statistics, 2019 might prove to be the deadliest year in modern Mexican history. Armed with this data - 8,524 Mexicans killed between December and February - I went to one of AMLO's news conferences earlier this month.
I'm always struck by the grandeur of Mexico City's National Palace. That morning, I was also impressed by the dozens of journalists and cameramen given access to the president. I raised my hand, and when my turn came, I asked, "What will you do in the short term to stop the homicides?"
"We have the situation under control, according to our data," the president answered.
"The data I have say otherwise," I replied. "You aren't controlling it. In fact, it is quite the opposite: Many Mexicans are still being murdered."
This is the heart of the debate. The president and his minister of security, Alfonso Durazo, claim that intentional homicides are decreasing. Yet the official figures - the government's own figures - suggest that Mexico is experiencing a particularly deadly year.
To be clear, we can't blame López Obrador for a crisis he inherited from the last two presidents. But we also can't accept the official narrative that his administration has already achieved results, and that things are improving. Do we have to wait for AMLO's new crime-fighting National Guard to become operational before Mexicans stop dying?
Violence is the nations core problem, and the most relevant to its citizens. Which is why I was surprised that the issue social media picked up on, and that was most discussed by pundits, was the manner in which I questioned the president. My data didn't match his, so I pointed it out to him. I also told AMLO that journalists never reveal their sources - something he has demanded of the newspaper Reforma - and I questioned his silence regarding the actions of President Donald Trump. That's all.
I wasn't disrespectful. I addressed him only as "Mr. President." My job is to ask questions. I was just trying to have a conversation, which is why I didn't wait several minutes for him to answer each one. It's a matter of journalistic style, one that I find is more natural and yields more information. This is the way I've worked for decades, with both presidents and dictators - whether I'm interviewing Donald Trump or Nicolás Maduro, Enrique Peña Nieto or Hugo Chávez, Ernesto Zedillo or Fidel Castro.
If, during the news conference, I went up to the president's podium to look more closely at the homicide figures he had displayed on the screen, it was only because he had invited me to. We even shared a microphone.
It all seemed to go pretty well. Then something changed.
A few days after the news conference, AMLO praised "prudent" journalists and warned, "Now you know what happens when you overstep," in a reference to the criticism my questioning of the president had received online.
The best journalists I know aren't prudent at all. From the standpoint of leaders like López Obrador, they disobey their orders and overstep their boundaries all the time. But that kind of journalism is the only way powerful people can be challenged and held to account. AMLO himself behaved recklessly before he became president, rebelling against what he called the mafia of power. Now that he's in charge, asking journalists to toe the line makes no sense.
Disagreeing with rulers is a key element of democracy. As is being able to discuss the issues of the day in a prudent manner and without fear of negative consequences (even if you might be slaughtered on social media). All of us, I think, could calm down a bit.
Confronting a president when his numbers don't add up - or when he asks a newspaper to do something unethical - isn't overstepping or being a rebel without a cause. It's just journalism, plain and simple.