The Telenovela That Wasn’t
The firing of crusading Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui has become the latest cause for free press activists. But is her salacious story as straightforward as it seems?
MEXICO CITY — Carmen Aristegui is a likable hero for Mexico’s perennially embattled media. Given to little makeup or hairstyling, the 51-year-old radio personality has gained a reputation for her lack of pretension. A few weeks ago, I met her at the offices of her online newspaper, Aristegui Noticias, located in a run-down building in the unassuming Anzures district of Mexico City. The setting is more reminiscent of a basement start-up than the bureau of a celebrity broadcaster, whose radio show once regularly drew an average of 15 million listeners.
“I like to use the stairs, it’s the only exercise I get these days,” she explains by way of an apology for the sluggish elevator. After warmly greeting her news team, Aristegui leads the way to a closet-like back office.
There, over the buzz of a worn-out electric fan, she recounts the story of her dismissal in March from MVS Comunicaciones, the Mexican radio and satellite television provider. In Aristegui’s telling, it is a tale of government collusion. MVS, on the other hand, claims that it fired Aristegui and cancelled her popular morning radio program because she refused to accept the station’s new editorial guidelines. But she links her dismissal to her reporting on a major conflict-of-interest scandal with the president at its center.
Last November, Aristegui revealed that Grupo Higa, a major public contractor that won millions of dollars in state business, built a lavish home for the wife of President Enrique Peña Nieto. The investigation into the $7 million luxury mansion, dubbed the “White House” owing to its white interior and color-changing lighting system, sparked subsequent revelations about additional properties owned by Higa and used by the presidency’s inner circles.
“There was no business rationale to cancel the newscast except that MVS was under very strong political pressure, especially after the White House investigation,” says Aristegui from across the table. “It is obvious that the company used a pretext, and that this decision was very probably made by the government.”
She is now taking her fight to the courts. A Mexico City judge has ordered a hearing scheduled for May 12 to determine whether MVS violated its contract with the radio host, and if she should be reinstated. “When MVS refused to negotiate, it left me with no choice but to go to the courts,” she says. “This is not only about my journalistic work or my job. It is about freedom of expression and defending audiences’ right to information.”
The case has whipped up public opinion, turning Aristegui into Mexico’s latest martyr for press freedom. Her supporters across the country have joined six rights organizations to file so-called “amparos,” a Mexican legal procedure intended to protect human rights, in protest of her dismissal.
Her firing has also unleashed a wave of intrigue and conspiracy that would make House of Cards creator Beau Willimon proud. Some people assert that MVS let go of Aristegui to curry favor with the government ahead of an auction for broadcasters’ airwaves next year. Others suggest that the president demanded her dismissal out of fear that her promotion of MéxicoLeaks, a small whistle-blowing website, would give its investigations a higher profile, allowing revelations of more government scandals to reach national audiences. And there is even talk that MVS had lost an important ally against the government — the powerful telecoms mogul Carlos Slim — making the station more vulnerable to political pressure.
Critics say that a pervasive culture of self-censorship in Mexico’s broadcast media contributes to a lack of watchdog journalism in the country. The politically connected Televisa controls almost 70 percent of the broadcast television business, and media owners depend on concessions granted by a regulator that has historically been influenced by special interests. “The level of tolerance for journalism critical of the government is extremely low in Mexico because we don’t have a sufficiently developed democratic system,” Aristegui argues.
But a number of her former superiors and colleagues have criticized the beloved yet battle-prone journalist for her lack of regard for authority. Moreover, there is no proof implicating the government in Aristegui’s banishment from the airwaves. (As Salvador Camarena, Aristegui’s trusted former MVS colleague, admitted to me: “we have no smoking gun.”)
The commotion around Aristegui’s case highlights the government’s sinking credibility. Her no-frills style strikes a sharp contrast to the nattily-dressed, aloof Peña Nieto, whose perfectly coiffed hair was as much a talking point in his December 2012 election victory as his lofty reform promises. Almost three years later, he has made important economic strides. But he has yet to implement tough measures to crack down on corruption or assure Mexicans that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — once synonymous with greed and a lust for power — has changed its stripes.
Aristegui, meanwhile, has won huge admiration among anti-corruption crusaders and free speech advocates for her unflinching attacks against Mexico’s political elite. Over her 25-year career, she has uncovered a prostitution ring run by a party chief, a pedophile priest protected by a powerful Roman Catholic cardinal, and the alleged involvement of Televisa in a Central American drug-smuggling ring.
When Aristegui blew the lid off the “White House” story last November, the Peña Nieto government was already reeling from accusations of incompetence and corruption. The previous month, 43 students from the Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa in rural Mexico were allegedly murdered by a corrupt mayor in cahoots with criminal gangs. The scandal sparked an international outcry, not to mention massive protests against the government, whose gaffe-prone communication strategy made matters worse. “Carmen became the pebble in Peña Nieto’s shoe,” said Denise Dresser, a long-time collaborator of Aristegui’s and a former MVS pundit.
But the government isn’t the only institution Aristegui has antagonized, according to numerous interviews with her colleagues and former employers. In 2002, Aristegui hosted a radio show for the broadcasting company Grupo Imagen. But her boss at the time, Pedro Ferriz de Con, fired her over disagreements about the company’s editorial line: “She said terrible things about Imagen on-air during her time there. Imagine how the audience took it?” he said.
In another incident in 2008, W Radio, a joint-venture between Spain’s Grupo Prisa and Televisa, decided not to renew her contract. According to Daniel Moreno, her boss at the time, she arrived at the office late and refused to take commercial breaks, depriving the station of a vital source of revenue. As the bottom line suffered, the company presented her with new rules, Moreno said. But after months of negotiations, she backed out, claiming the station wanted to censor her.
In many of her spats with employers Aristegui has cried foul, turning up the political heat by implying that the powers that be have called for her head. According to Aristegui, Ferriz and businessman Alfonso Romo, a stakeholder in Imagen, had a personal vendetta against her because she exposed a sex scandal involving a highly respected and powerful religious order in Mexico. She also claims that she was dismissed from W Radio due to her criticism of the derisively named “Televisa Law” – a measure passed in 2006 that was widely interpreted as giving the powerful station privileges in gaining new broadcast concessions and expanding its market dominance. “On the program we had months of debate about this law, and it infuriated Televisa,” she said.
Perhaps all this should have sounded the alarm for MVS owner Joaquín Vargas Gómez when he hired her. But the tycoon was seduced by Aristegui’s massive viewership, and loaded her contract with deal sweeteners. This included an ethics code spelling out her editorial control over her show, an MVS ombudsman to safeguard audiences’ rights, and an independent arbitrator to intercede in editorial disputes between her and the company.
Yet Aristegui has a habit of repeating herself. In 2011, the firebrand journalist was let go after Felipe Calderón, the president at the time, called Vargas demanding that Aristegui apologize or be fired for reporting rumors he had a drinking problem. According to Aristegui, Vargas allegedly begged her to yield to the president’s request, saying that he was in the middle of negotiating with the government to hang onto a multi-million dollar broadcast concession. But Aristegui refused, choosing instead to publicize what happened. “Why should I have to equivocate and apologize, and accept the temper tantrum of a president?” she said at her office. Vargas later reinstated her after her huge fan base protested.
Aristegui claimed that the incident did not damage her relationship with Vargas, but that problems resurfaced with the White House investigation. She says he asked her not to air the report on her radio show (requesting her “understanding”). So she broke the story on her own website. MVS has not responded to the allegations.
In the months that followed the White House revelations, her reporting grew relentless, sparking an on-air showdown with her employer that led to her dismissal in March. “There was a loss of confidence in Carmen,” said Ezra Shabot, another journalist at MVS. “The owners felt that they were losing their space on the radio, that she was the owner of it.”
Tensions reached a climax when Aristegui announced on March 10 that her team of investigative journalists at MVS would help promote Méxicoleaks, a new digital tool founded by eight Mexican media outlets and civil society groups courting would-be whistleblowers to help expose state corruption.
Infuriated, MVS issued a series of news bulletins that appeared in the middle of Aristegui’s show, accusing her team of using the MVS brand name to endorse Méxicoleaks deceptively and illegally. It then fired two leading journalists on her investigative team, Daniel Lizárraga and Irving Huerta, both of whom were involved in the Méxicoleaks story.
Aristegui refused to accept their dismissal and picked a fight with the company on-air. “Instead of punishing them we should be rewarding them!” she said on her March 13 broadcast. MVS retaliated, declaring to its audiences it would not accept her “ultimatum,” and published new editorial guidelines on its website imposing restrictions on content.
On March 15, MVS said it would reinstate Lizárraga and Huerta if Aristegui accepted the new editorial rules. But she refused, and that evening received notification from MVS that her show had been cancelled. The next day, news of her firing and that of her 17-member team made headlines, sparking a public uproar.
Aristegui still has a column in the Mexican magazine Reforma and a show on CNN’s Spanish-language program version. But her supporters say that her exile from the airwaves has left a critical gap in the coverage of Mexican politics ahead of important mid-term congressional elections on June 7. The story has also been swept up into wider criticisms of Mexico’s shaky human rights record.
In the same breath that media reports have referenced Aristegui’s firing, they point out that attacks on reporters in Mexico are ticking upward. According to a March investigation by the British rights group Article 19, violence against members of the press rose 80 percent in the first two years of the Peña Nieto administration, relative to the six-year average of his predecessor. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also ranks Mexico among the world’s top 10 countries for journalist killings, and impunity in such cases is as high as 90 percent.
But the crux of the issues in the case of Carmen Aristegui appears to be less about the human rights tale than the slow — and often sporadic — slog toward political reform.
New legislation enacted last July has sought to bring fresh competition into Mexico’s stiflingly uncompetitive broadcast market. It has also created specialized tribunals for media and antitrust matters, helping to fast-track legal procedures. Aristegui’s supporters have utilized the newly formed telecommunications and broadcast courts to file complaints against MVS, claiming that the company’s actions breached the public’s right of access to information. Still, critics argue that these procedures could be bogged down in red tape and that the courts remain over-stretched, lacking both human and financial resources.
“These new legal tools are here to guarantee the rights of journalists and the Mexican people, but it is a big challenge for Mexico’s justice system,” says Aristegui, looking tired for the first time in our interview. Yet the crack in her armor is only momentary. Leaning forward to be heard over the raspy fan, she adds with characteristic zeal: “But it mustn’t drag on, every minute wasted is a minute that the Mexican people lose their right to critical information.”