She exposed government corruption with investigative reporting that made international headlines, helped launch the Mexicoleaks whistleblower website, and was voted second most powerful woman in the country last year by Forbes Mexico, but Carmen Aristegui, one of the country's most popular radio journalists, has been fired from MVS Radio after demanding that the privately owned station reinstate two investigative reporters.
Aristegui, who hosted a weekday news radio program that, according to ratings is in the top five most-listened-to talk shows in Mexico City, and a current events program on CNN en español, was fired after demanding that the station reinstate Irving Huerta and Daniel Lizarraga. The reporters worked with her on an investigation into the property dealings of President Enrique Peña Nieto's wife, and were part of Mexicoleaks, according to news reports. On Sunday, MVS Radio released a statement saying it had refused to accept "Aristegui's ultimatum" and that "individual attitudes have no place in our project."
Huerta and Lizarraga were fired on March 12 after station management said it "lost confidence" in them. Their dismissal followed MVS Radio disavowing involvement in Mexicoleaks--a platform allowing whistleblowers to anonymously leak documents--and accusing Aristegui of improperly associating its brand with the project, according to the statement. Aristegui is listed on Mexicoleaks as "Unidad Aristegui/MVS," which refers to her program on MVS and the Aristegui Noticias news website.
"The journalists should be awarded, not punished with firing," Aristegui said on March 13, in what would be her final appearance on MVS Radio. "It is not a time for submission. It is not a time to accept regressions. It is not time for Mexican society, which has taken time to open space for freedom of expression, public debate, social presence, awareness [and] fundamental rights, to move backwards," she said. "We do not have the right to sell out, to accept ... an authoritarian storm of regressions on the national map."
Social media sites exploded with posts outraged at Aristegui's dismissal, and the hashtags #EnDefensadeAristegui and #EnDefensadeAristegui2 trended on Twitter. Pictures posted to Twitter showed supporters of Lizarraga and Huerta placing "chayotes" (gourds) outside the radio station. "Chayo" is Mexican slang for money paid by politicians to reporters for positive stories.
Aristegui's dismissal comes as journalists, advocates, and academics voice concerns over freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Mexico. CPJ research shows the country has become one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists, who often run the risk of offending organized crime groups or powerful politicians, especially in states where governments are important advertisers. Many journalists have previously told CPJ they self-censor to avoid clashes with their editors and owners.
Several Aristegui supporters interviewed by CPJ disputed MVS Radio's claim that her exit was related to Mexicoleaks, which launched March 10. Many of her supporters said they believed Aristegui was fired as part of an effort to silence a critical voice at a time when Peña Nieto is pitching the country to international investors as a place undergoing radical reform.
"It's so obvious that this has nothing to with Mexicoleaks," said an editor in Mexico City, who has worked with Aristegui's team. The editor, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject, added: "It's only a pretext to screw over Carmen Aristegui."
Denise Dresser, a political science professor at Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, and regular guest on the weekly politics roundtable on Aristegui's show, told CPJ: "Here the issue is that the media is not independent."
"[Media] are so dependent on government renewal of concessions on government licenses on a whole set of regulations--so if you attract the displeasure of the administration, the sanctions can be very severe. Your concessions can be taken away from you. You can be shut down," she said.
Speaking outside MVS Radio's offices in Mexico City on Monday, Aristegui told reporters her departure had signs of being "planned far in advance." She said: "Our lawyers tell us that they have no right to do what they are doing. Our lawyers tell us that we are going to give a battle, that this is trampling freedom of expression."
MVS Radio management did not respond to a CPJ request for interview on Monday. Attempts to reach Aristegui and Lizarraga were unsuccessful, and Huerta declined to comment when contacted by CPJ.
It is not the first time Aristegui has been forced to leave the station. She was fired from MVS Radio in 2011 after asking the then-president Felipe Calderón to respond to allegations made by an opposition lawmaker in Congress that he had a drinking problem. (The president's office responded with a statement to the press saying Calderón was "in a good state of health.") The station rehired Aristegui after public outcry, according to news reports.
Aristegui's show aired opposition opinions and touched on controversial topics, such as the army killing 22 suspected gang members in June, including some who had allegedly surrendered, and the 43 students kidnapped and presumably killed in Guerrero state in September.
Her investigative reporting has hit the upper echelons of power, including Angélica Rivera, the wife of President Peña Nieto, who was revealed by Aristegui Noticias to have purchased a $7 million mansion built by government contractor Grupo Higa. The contractor allegedly provided credit for Rivera to buy the home, according to Aristegui Notcias. In a video statement Rivera said she purchased the home with money she earned as a soap opera star. The president's office denied any conflict of interest.
The investigative report was published shortly after the government awarded a contract for building a bullet train connecting Mexico City and Querétaro to a Chinese company and Mexican partners, including Grupo Higa, in a move criticized in the press over its unusually short bidding time. The project was scrapped just before revelations about Rivera's house--commonly called the "Casa Blanca" (White House) in Mexico, according to news reports. Subsequent investigations by The Wall Street Journal showed Peña Nieto and Finance Minister Luis Videgaray purchased homes from contractors who went on to win deals with the federal government after they took office in December 2012. Both deny any wrongdoing, according to news reports.
"I think that the white house story was such a blow to the government and that as of today, Peña Nieto and his team have not figured out how to deal with it properly," Dresser said. "Carmen is a thorn in the side of the government--Carmen and some of us on the air."
MVS Radio had tried to disassociate itself from Mexicoleaks, and, according to news reports, ran advertisements during Aristegui's show stating its position. It issued guidelines on March 13 that sought to control content through establishing an "editorial committee" and would have removed Aristegui's ability to have the final word on editorial matters.
"It's a deliberate effort from the company to reduce the margin of independence of the program," Sergio Aguayo, an academic at the Colegio de México and participant in Aristegui's politics panel, told CPJ on Sunday. "Carmen signed an agreement with the owners [of MVS] that gives her broad autonomy and freedom, which is uncommon in Mexico. Carmen was able to achieve a large amount of independence."
MVS Radio Listeners ombudsman Gabriel Plata Sosa expressed similar sentiments in a statement on Sunday that accused the company of "unilaterally [modifying] the conditions of the contract."
The guidelines, he said, "Are not the result of consensual action as was done in the preceding document, which has legal consequences the [ombudsman] does not have the ability to analyze."
Later that night, the ombudsman's office tweeted, "It's a sad night for journalism and freedom of expression. As much as we called for dialogue, an impasse prevailed."
[Reporting from Mexico City]