The firing of one of Mexico’s most prominent journalists this week added to a growing list of concerns about the strength of the country's democracy.
Carmen Aristegui, who exposed numerous high-profile scandals, including ones that touched President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife, was dismissed by radio station Noticias MVS Sunday.
Events started to unravel last week, when Ms. Aristegui’s investigative team and a handful of other media outlets together launched an initiative called Mexicoleaks, which aims to gather tips about government and political corruption. Noticias MVS claimed its name was used at the launch without authorization, and fired two investigative reporters on the team.
The station’s ombudsman called MVS’s response “disproportionate,” and Aristegui pushed for her reporters’ reinstatement. But while her four-hour morning news program had the station’s largest audience, the station terminated her contract before she could go on air Monday morning, citing its rejection of "ultimatums."
Aristegui is controversial: some find her reporting irritating, while others call it courageous, says Rául Trejo Delarbre, a media specialist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, noting that she pushed important discussions about key power brokers. But she represents a unique voice in the Mexican media, which, like much of Latin America, is controlled by a few powerful media conglomerates that can be beholden to government advertising or self-imposed censorship. To those trying to strengthen the foundations of a free press, her firing is a worrisome development that speaks to the fragility of the media here.
“This country can’t spare a single voice. To the contrary, we lack voices,” Katia D’Artigues Beauregard wrote in an opinon for El Universal today.
Struggle for independence
Many of Latin America's young democracies have struggled to establish robust and independent media. For one thing, Latin America is one of the deadliest regions in the world for journalism. In Mexico, that has at times led to self-censorship, with one border-town newspaper famously running a front-page message in 2010 asking drug cartels for guidance on how to report to keep its journalists safe.
But there are less obvious threats as well. Government advertising plays an important role in self-censoring, particularly in smaller towns and cities, according to a 2012 report by the Inter-American Dialogue. Most media companies in Latin America are privately owned by a single family or individual, shielding them from market forces and there is little competition.
In Mexico, for example, two large companies hold 97 percent of the national television market. Reforms introduced by President Peña Nieto in 2012 and passed last year should broaden access to non-cable TV stations, but the concrete impact has yet to be seen.
“New concessions are going to be awarded through a quasi-government entity that has yet to prove its independence,” says Sallie Hughes, an associate professor at the University of Miami. She questions whether MVS may be looking toward future business opportunities. “You have to wonder, how do upcoming media concessions play into firing Aristegui and her team – a group that has embarrassed the president nationally?”
Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of Americas in Washington, says "there clearly is an impression – fair or not – that press freedoms in the Western Hemisphere are being challenged.” He cites prominent examples from Venezuela and Ecuador, where the governments have threatened journalists or taken away radio and television concessions.
In the case of Aristegui – whose listenership was estimated to be nearly 15 million – more than 174,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org to reinstate her, and protesters gathered outside MVS’s studios on Monday.
“[MVS], what dark forces are you obeying?” read one poster hanging in front of the studio. “The right to information is dead!” read another.
“At the very least it seems illogical that [MVS owner] Joaquín Vargas would fire a journalist that has so much to bring, in a business sense,” to the station, columnist Miguel Badillo wrote in Mexican newspaper El Universal.
“Firing #CarmenAristegui to protect the brand means not understanding the client. Unless the client lives in Los Pinos [the presidential palace],” tweeted journalist Ernique Acevedo.
There’s no evidence that the government played a role in Aristegui’s firing, but there’s plenty of speculation.
In November, just weeks into Peña Nieto’s struggle to address the disappearance and assumed massacre of 43 teacher’s college students, Aristegui and her team released a report on the first lady’s suspicious home purchase from a government contractor. The report further embroiled the government in corruption allegations and public mistrust.
Trejo puts it this way: What if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were fired a few months after exposing the Watergate scandal? “Even if it was the personal decision of the news outlet,” he says, “losing journalists who do such important work has a big impact on citizens.”
Aristegui lost her job with MVS once before, in 2011, when she called on then-President Felipe Calderón to defend himself against accusations of a drinking problem. She was dismissed on ethics grounds, but was brought back after public protests. It was later revealed by a studio executive that members of Mr. Calderón’s staff had applied pressure on the station to let her go.
The Ministry of the Interior said in a statement this week that “the government has respected the exercise of critical and professional journalism.” The ministry called on Aristegui and MVS to talk through their differences.
“With the exit of Carmen Aristegui and her team, we all lose: The audience, liberty of expression, the right to information, MVS and the Vargas family,” said MVS ombudsman Gabriel Sosa Plata. “Journalists in Mexico are extremely vulnerable, and so are the rights of their audiences. This case is an example.”