* Journalists at risk from drug cartel violence
* Media pact wants more measured coverage of drug war
* Drug gangs have used media to spread messages
(Updates with comment from the government)
By Cyntia Barrera Diaz and Miguel Angel Gutierrez
MEXICO CITY, March 24 Mexico's main television networks and other news groups vowed on Thursday to put tighter controls on the publication of gruesome images from a drugs war that has hurt President Felipe Calderon's government.
Major daily newspapers and top television broadcasters, Televisa (TV.N) and TV Azteca TVAZTCACPO.MX, said they would seek to make sure drug cartel leaders "are not seen as victims or public heroes" and are unable to use the media as a propaganda tool.
"The ability of organized crime to corrupt and intimidate has become a threat to the institutions and practices that sustain our democracy," the news organizations said in an accord on how they will report the violence.
Gory images of beheaded bodies tossed on highways or strung up from bridges are beamed nightly into living rooms across the country and splashed on the front pages of newspapers.
The 10-point pact includes a clause to ensure coverage is more measured and put in the context of violence elsewhere, in what appeared to be a victory for the government, which has said reporting on Mexico's drugs war is often overblown.
Calderon applauded the media guidelines.
"Media participation is crucial in building state security policy, underscoring the importance of this agreement," the president's office said in a statement. "We encourage other parts of society to promote initiatives like this one to confront those who want to destroy the peace and security of all Mexicans."
Multimedia coverage: link.reuters.com/wam89p
Political risks in Mexico: [ID:nRISKMX]
More than 36,000 people have been killed since Calderon launched his army-backed campaign against the gangs in late 2006. Cartels often leave threatening messages on the bodies of their rivals and in public places.
Calderon has criticized Mexico's media for publishing the threats, and occasionally showing grainy videos of hitmen interrogating tied-up enemies before executing them.
His government says it is making gains against the cartels and defends Mexico's reputation by citing higher per capita murder rates in other Latin American countries.
Opinion polls show public confidence in security has been shaken, and Calderon's conservative ruling party is lagging the main opposition party ahead of next year's presidential vote.
Moreover, the rising death toll has scared off some tourists and businesses and remains a lingering concern for rating agencies monitoring investment in Mexico.
The agreement between dozens of news organizations on Thursday also aims to improve protection for journalists covering the war between cartels and security forces.
Twenty-two journalists have been murdered during Calderon's term, at least eight in direct reprisal attacks for reporting on crime and corruption, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, which welcomed the media accord.
"I think this is positive in a sense that they are getting together and forming a united front," said Carlos Lauria, the head of the Americas program at the CPJ.
"There is nothing worse than the current situation where the media is being cowed into silence in many parts -- in places where the government has lost control," he added.
Seven other journalists have gone missing in the last four years with dozens more threatened, kidnapped, or forced into exile, and many local newspapers, TV and radio stations have been bullied by drug gangs into stopping news coverage of the violence. [ID:nN0758872]
A cameraman for the Milenio television network was kidnapped last year in northern Mexico, and in an unprecedented move, his captors conditioned his release on the station broadcasting a drug cartel video message. [ID:nN04170558]
The agreement on Thursday comes amid a feud between the two top broadcasters and Mexican telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, the world's richest man.
Televisa and TV Azteca both accuse Slim of blocking their efforts to offer telephone services with the power he wields in the Mexican mobile network, and have pressed the government to weaken his hold.
(Additional reporting by Krista Hughes and Mica Rosenberg, editing by Kieran Murray)
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