Radio Silence - A Defense of Carmen Aristegui and a Mexican Free Press
“This battle is for the liberty of expression, for the editorial, for the audiences, for the citizens. For the right to say, for the right to listen. It is about resisting the authoritarian gale that has been unleashed in Mexico, not permitting another turn of the screws on that old authoritarian machinery that remains among us…”
Carmen Aristegui’s resonating and mobilizing message traveled through the airwaves, deep into the homes and consciousnesses of thousands of Mexican listeners. It anticipated the escalation and severity of the forthcoming occurrences in the Mexican media world; what Aristegui described as “an ominous sign of something that we should certainly avoid.” She transmitted a message of non-partisan, universal import: freedom of the press is an assurance of liberty, and certainly something worth fighting for in a democracy in crisis, as Mexico is currently. The morning of March 16th, three days after the country awoke to silence on her channel, her message about the importance of freedom of the press for the future of Mexican democracy seemed prophetic.
Carmen Aristegui, considered the most famous newscast journalist in Mexico, once hosted a daily morning radio talk show followed devoutly by millions of middle-class Mexicans. Her personal brand of investigatory journalism was markedly different from the standard of Mexican media: aggressive, probing—if sometimes lacking in reportorial rigor. Though criticized for being hyperbolic and factually unsound, her voice had become an integral and respected part of political dialogue across the country. Her radio show was particularly important within a Mexican society with limited access to the internet and without universal literacy, whose alternate source of news is the pliant duopoly of Televisa and TV Azteca, neither of which provide legitimate news under any standard.
Hers was a critical voice in a country where the media too rarely acts as a counterweight to opaque, corrupt, abusive governmental power. She stood as the antithesis of the system she exposed and decried on her show. The famous Mexican historian Karuze refers to her as a “journalist caudillo”—a charismatic, populist leader. Though her cult-like following and fierce conviction made many resent and critique her, Aristegui’s show provided a critical space for political debate within a society oppressed by a universal lack of transparency and rampant corruption. After being fired from MVS Communications, the media conglomerate that aired her talk show, three days after the transmittal of her prescient message, she became a martyr for press freedom in Mexico. If her views are polarizing and disagreeable, the symbolic weight and magnitude of her dismissal is not: it is reflective of a perverted relationship between the Mexican government and media, and of a Mexico that is feeling, in her words, the “strong authoritarian wind” of a government that seems to have no effective solutions to the problems facing the country—and whose response to criticism and complaints of the people is to limit freedom of expression and social organization.
The silencing of Aristegui by MVS Communications came after the dismissal of two other journalists from Aristegui’s investigatory team. Daniel Lizárraga and Irving Huerta had been fired a week earlier by MVS Radio, which reported that the two were let go for using the company’s logo without permission in support of Méxicoleaks, a whistle-blowing portal created by five Mexican media outlets and two foreign civic groups. Aristegui immediately broadcasted an ultimatum, threatening to resign if the journalists were not reinstated. MVS released a statement two days later terminating its work relationship with Aristegui, claiming that it could not allow one of its employees to “impose conditions and ultimatums on the administration,” and that the newly-enacted set of guidelines, allowing for further interference by the company on the content of its associates’ broadcasting, had been violated by her and her collaborators.
This official account is markedly different from Aristegui’s own; she describes “a conjunction of irregularities and reportable situations.” The two reporters who were fired were at the time investigating a property in the municipality of Malinalco, belonging to the Secretary of Finance Luis Videgaray – one of the president’s closest advisors – who had acquired it at a lower-than-market value with credit. The house was sold to him by the same contractors that had previously sold President Enrique Peña Nieto’s wife Angélica Rivera a $7 million mansion in exchange for thousands of dollars in government contracts. The property was dubbed “The White House” by Aristegui’s team of investigative reporters who first broke the story. Their investigation provoked one of the most significant crises in confidence that any president in Mexico has ever faced, particularly for a government already reeling in the face of public anger over the disappearance of forty-three college students from a rural college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. The investigation of the Malinalco property occurred less than three months before midterm elections, during which Peña Nieto’s party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), will surely struggle. Aristegui’s firing also comes few weeks after Peña Nieto promoted Eduardo Sánchez, a former lawyer for MVS, to be head of government communications. All this led Aristegui to announce in her first press conference since her dismissal that the issue of Méxicoleaks and the company logo was merely a “pretext,” an “artificial conflict…forcibly installed” by external interests.
The particular circumstances surrounding Aristegui’s dismissal fit well within the historical context of the relationship between the Mexican government and the media. During the seven-decade rule of PRI until 2000, Mexico had truly no free press. Media outlets existed under the shadow of state censorship. Political analysts in Mexico have said that in the face of the recent crises, Peña Nieto’s government has been trying to restore some of the old forms of control over the media, harking back to the days when nobody dared to investigate the president or his ministers. Instances of journalistic repression by the PRI include the closing of the 1920s magazine Hoy after publishing photographs of then-President Lazaro Cardenas wearing a bathing suit, the closing of the newspaper El Diario de Mexico after mistakenly printing a photograph of then-president Diaz Ordaz next to a shot of monkeys at the zoo, and most famously the coup d’etat within the Excelsior corporation against director Julio Scherer orchestrated by the Echeveria administration of 1970-76. Scherer had been the only editor of a major Mexican media news corporations to report critically on the role of the Mexican government during the famous October 2nd student massacre in Tlatelolco, for which he was quickly fired from his role. Aristegui herself made reference to this incident during her most recent press conference at the Museum of Memory in Mexico City, stating, “Mexico is not in a position to be accepting Echeverristic practices—for we believe that such a thing is possible.”
Market liberalization, the economic crises, and the stagnation of the PRI regime during the 1990s all helped to loosen state control over Mexico’s media. But now, it seems that once again a journalist has come too close for comfort to the President of the Republic. Peña Nieto’s government has emphatically denied any role in MVS’s decision to terminate Aristegui’s contract. The Interior Ministry issued the following statement: “The government has respected the exercise of critical and professional journalism and will continue to do so with the conviction that the plurality of opinions is indispensable for the strengthening of democratic life in the country.”
This official communication is not merely an inadequate response to the obvious questions concerning the role of the administration in Aristegui’s dismissal. It is a perverted account of the Mexican State’s regard for investigative journalism of any sort. A brief survey of the history of the relationship between this president’s party and the media is enough to prove the statement insulting in its blatant falsity. The words are a direct affront to the hundreds of journalists, including Carmen Aristegui, who have suffered repression and violence while trying to carry out their important work. It is certainly true that “the plurality of opinions is indispensable for the strengthening of democratic life in the country,” but governments like that of Mr. Peña Nieto are still relentless in their efforts to prevent media services from being a source of democratization in Mexico.
Mexico currently is among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. Reports by media freedom groups including Article 19 and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) have documented an unprecedented level of violence faced by the Mexican press as a result of corruption, organized crime and the armed offensive against drug traffickers. During the first two years of Peña Nieto’s term in office, the average number of attacks against journalists in Mexico rose significantly to an average of 328 attacks per year—a reporter is attacked every 26.7 hours. Nine reporters have been killed, and the disappearance of at least ten journalists had been documented. The situation is markedly worse for reporters in peripheral areas, where a slower transition to democracy has often allowed for the survival of old abusive and authoritarian practices of state governments against the media. Here, local reporters face a myriad of pressures from the authorities, including intimidation by the police, violence from the cartels, and corruption by local officials. The privileged status of Carmen Aristegui within the media world may have protected her from greater harm, but her treatment highlights the eminent danger faced by any honest journalist in the country. Few of these crimes are properly investigated and even fewer have resulted in prosecutions and convictions, reflecting the general state of impunity within Mexican society. They occur even as a federal law, protection mechanism, and “special” prosecuting unit all exist for the sole purpose of protecting the press. The Mexican government has the legal tools to guarantee freedom of expression but is evidently unwilling to use them in order to improve the situation for journalists in Mexico.
Across the country, there is a corrupt symbiosis between the government and media owners that serves only private economic and political interests, while neglecting the public’s right to legitimate news. The opaque allocation of government advertisement is one of the most pernicious and rampant forms of soft censorship exerted by the government, which effectively constrains pluralism and a diversity of voices by selectively funding media outlets that support officials and their policies. Peña Nieto’s administration has spent almost one million dollars more on advertising than the previous administration. Radio corporations in particular face soft censorship by the government in the form of selective allocation of the broadcast spectrum. The state imposes serious pressure, even on commercial outlets as large as MVS. In 2012, the CEO of MVS accused the Mexican government of threatening the company with the loss of spectrum unless it fired Aristegui, who was a harsh critic of then-President Felipe Calderon.
Reforms must be made to protect the media in Mexico and reporters like Aristegui. The 2013 Telecommunication Reform Act contains several important moves towards transforming relationships between the media and government. The provisions that aim to limit concentration and boost pluralism and competitiveness in Mexico’s media should be implemented and enforced. All broadcast licenses and spectrum allocations should be transparently regulated by law on an objective criteria. Public debates on financial relations between government and media outlets should be encouraged to address institutional reforms. Political leaders and media owners must be made accountable for their abuses, becoming watchdogs and platforms for democratic debate, rather than remain tools of political and special interests.
In firing Aristegui, the company MVS violated the “human right to freedom of thought and to receive information and ideas and content that reflect the country’s ideological pluralism, political, social and cultural,” stated Mexican political analyst Denise Dresser. The symbolic weight of Aristegui’s dismissal is especially felt at this moment in Mexico, when the desire for truth has reached a hysterical climax.
Federal Judge Fernando Silva ordered a meeting between MVS and Carmen Aristegui on Friday April 24 in the presence of an impartial arbzitrator, stating that the mediated meeting should aim to help resume Aristegui’s news radio show, and that MVS jeopardized the freedom of expression of its workers, warning that if MVS does not reach an agreement with Aristegui before the beginning of the hearing on April 27, he will make the decision whether or not to resume the news show.
Aristegui’s investigative journalism fights for a fragile Mexican democracy. An independent, free, and critical press is a fundamental and necessary tool to enjoy the benefits of a democratic government. The outcome of her dismissal will speak to the capacity of Mexican society to fight for and defend individuals that speak for transparency and truth. •