She is sort of a cross between Christiane Amanpour and a dog with a bone. Carmen Aristegui is possibly Mexico’s most famous journalist, very courageous and often annoying. She hosts an enormously popular four-hour daily radio program and has a nightly talk-show gig on the Spanish-language service of CNN.
And now, she is in trouble.
Aristegui has clashed with the corporate bosses who own her radio station and for at least the third time in recent years has faced being off the air at least temporarily.
This time her bosses, without consulting her, she says, fired two key members of her investigative reporting staff. They happen to be the journalists who exposed possible conflict-of-interest real-estate deals involving Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife and several mansions, unleashing a scandal that the government has yet to put to rest.
Many people in Mexico see the station’s actions as an effort to intimidate and punish hard-hitting journalists and wonder who is really behind it.
“Like it or not, bother whoever it bothers, hers is a voice that is needed in a country like ours,” said Alvaro Cueva, an analyst for the Milenio media group. “We cannot aspire to live in a society with options if all the news broadcasts always have the same news.”
The spat began this week with the launch of a new Internet-based platform called MexicoLeaks, a forum to denounce and investigate official corruption. MVS Radio said several of its employees improperly represented themselves in the launch of the site, making it seem that MVS was a sponsor.
MVS ran ads distancing itself from MexicoLeaks (some of which were broadcast during Aristegui’s show, even as she praised the new initiative) and saying use of its logo was illegal and “deceived the public.”
Aristegui took offense and almost seemed to be saying goodbye to her audience Wednesday. But she returned Thursday and proclaimed that she was not going anywhere because to do so would be to lose the little space free speech has in Mexico. Later Thursday her team members were fired.
The fired reporters’ computers were confiscated by radio executives, local media reported. MVS said in a statement it had “lost confidence” in the two men, suggesting they were moonlighting for MexicoLeaks without permission.
“Instead of firing them, they should be given prizes,” Aristegui said of her assistants in Friday’s broadcast. “This seriously damages our journalistic work. … This is a battle for our right to express ourselves. For our right to inform.”
She lay down what seemed to be an ultimatum: her two employees, Daniel Lizarraga and Irving Huerta, be reinstated, or she walks.
She then seemed to vanish from the air for about 20 minutes, as commercials and the prerecorded reading of headlines were broadcast. Finally, she returned, with reports on a massacre by the army in Tlatlaya and government efforts to dilute a transparency law, both stories, she said, for which she needed her whole team to be able to report fully.
Later Friday, the broadcaster issued another statement that also appeared aimed at further clipping Aristegui’s wings. It ordered a new set of guidelines that, among other things, required managers’ pre-approval of news items, the centralization of all journalistic investigations and the dismissal of correspondents outside Mexico. (Aristegui’s Washington correspondent is similarly known for hard-hitting stories critical of the Mexican government.)
An award-winning reporter and the author of several books, Aristegui is something of a journalistic force of nature, with an ego to match. She is applauded by other reporters when she walks into a room.
She has made her name in a string of radio and television jobs as well as newspaper columns spanning a 25-year career. A compact woman who dresses sensibly and is given to little makeup or hairdressing, she is a serious contrast to many of the more glamorous broadcast celebrities on both sides of the border. No one questions her sharp mind.
Aristegui fearlessly takes on causes and is not shy about pushing her own political agenda at times. But she also provides a rare venue for diverse voices that might not get an airing in traditional Mexican media.
Omar Garcia, a student from the rural college that was attended by the 43 freshmen who were abducted by police in September and apparently massacred, was among a small group protesting this week outside MVS studios in Mexico City’s Anzures neighborhood.
“Carmen Aristegui gave us a lot of space to express our voice and our problems, and this kind of censorship is regrettable,” Garcia told El Universal newspaper.
Aristegui has had run-ins with media bosses who tend to be beholden to governments for advertising revenue and often unwilling to ruffle feathers.
In February 2011, she was fired from MVS after she called on then-President Felipe Calderon to answer unsubstantiated claims that he had a serious drinking problem. A week later, the station reinstated her after a public uproar.
Three years earlier, she was forced to quit her 5-year-old program on W Radio. She said at the time that she believed “someone … called for my head.” Her departure came shortly after Calderon’s brother-in-law took over the company that owned W Radio.
More recently, her groundbreaking reports have included, in addition to the mansions that the president’s inner circle bought from a government contractor, a prostitution ring being run by the ruling party’s representative in Mexico City; exposure of possible involvement of Mexico’s largest broadcaster in a drug-smuggling ring in Central America; and revelations that the revered founder of a powerful Catholic order based in Mexico had fathered children and abused young men.
Aristegui, in an email to The Times on Friday, declined to comment. But in a cover story this month with the Mexican magazine Gatopardo, she defended the work of independent journalists in Mexico.
“We who have space [to work] must do so, despite the fear, which obliges you to be more rigorous and to always improve,” she said.
“I have tried to be true … to my audience. It is the permanent battle of journalism.”
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.