Widespread concern over media censorship and freedom of expression erupted across Mexico this week after the firing of Carmen Aristegui, one of the nation’s most respected journalists.
MVS Radio said it dismissed Aristegui, who hosted a hugely popular morning talk show, and her team of investigative reporters because they “compromised the name of the business” by lending their support to a new whistle-blowing platform without the company’s consent.
However, many in Mexico, including Aristegui herself, suspect the decision to fire her team was driven by pressure from a government that has been frequently embarrassed by their hard-hitting reporting.
A combative and influential reporter who also hosts a television show on CNN México, Aristegui was named the second most powerful woman in the country last year by Forbes México.
After being dismissed late on Sunday night, she gave a brief statement on Monday, affirming that her team, who work collectively under the name Aristegui Noticias, would be taking legal action to “fight for the freedom of expression” in Mexico.
Aristegui expanded upon her team’s position in a defiant press conference broadcast live on YouTube to more than 77,000 viewers on Thursday evening.
Although she admitted that she could not prove it, Aristegui said she suspects that the government intervened in a minor internal dispute that could have been resolved with a simple phone call in order to force her dismissal.
After proposing a meeting with the MVS owners on Monday and expressing her team’s desire to resume work “under the same conditions” as before, she ended the broadcast with a warning that Mexico is up against “an authoritarian machine” and is at serious risk of regression.
Why did MVS fire its star reporter?
This polemic episode was sparked last week by the launch of Méxicoleaks, a Wikileaks-style website aimed at enhancing transparency and denouncing acts of corruption.
“Aristegui Noticias/MVS” was listed among eight media outlets that supported the initiative, but MVS swiftly objected to the unauthorized use of its name and logo on the site.
Two days later it fired two members of Aristegui’s team of investigative reporters, Daniel Lizárraga and Irving Huerta, ostensibly because of a “loss of trust” stemming from their association with Méxicoleaks.
Aristegui demanded that they be reinstated but instead of doing so MVS opted to fire her as well.
The decision ignited a wave of outrage across Mexico and beyond, with #EnDefensadeAristegui (In defense of Aristegui) soon becoming a top ten worldwide trending topic on Twitter.
In firing its star reporter over a seemingly trivial matter, MVS made itself the target of public anger and stood to lose millions of listeners overnight. As a business decision it made very little sense, but there is widespread suspicion that MVS used the dispute as a pretext to bow to government pressure to silence Aristegui.
The Economist noted that “the media have long been dominated by political power” in Mexico, with “many outlets, including MVS Radio, [reliant] on the government for advertising and other perks.”
The timing of the firing was also suspicious, The Economist noted, with the government “struggling to regain popularity less than three months before mid-term elections.”
It also came just a few weeks after President Enrique Peña Nieto named Eduardo Sánchez, a former lawyer for MVS, as the government’s new head of communications.
Aristegui investigations embarrassed the government
Last year Aristegui Noticias broke two major stories that severely damaged the image of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
In April, it unearthed evidence that Cuauhtémoc Gutiérrez de la Torre, then the president of the PRI in Mexico City, had been hiring female staff in return for sexual favors.
Then, in November, it revealed that the first lady, Angélica Rivera, had bought a luxury Mexico City mansion from Grupo Higa, a favored government contractor that had won concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars from her husband’s administrations throughout his time as president and previously as governor of the State of Mexico.
The revelations sparked an uproar over perceived conflicts of interest at the highest levels of government, with Rivera denying any wrongdoing but nonetheless vowing to sell the controversial property.
The scandal worsened when subsequent investigations by the Wall Street Journal revealed that Peña Nieto had purchased another luxury property from another prominent contractor, while his finance minister, Luis Videgaray, had also bought a mansion from the Grupo Higa owner.
Both men maintained that they had done nothing wrong, but further investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed on Wednesday that the Grupo Higa owner made no profit from the sale to Videgaray, undermining his claim that the deal was done solely out of commercial interest.
MVS made a public statement late on Thursday night, rejecting Aristegui’s argument that her dismissal had been planned in advance and maintaining that she “could not accept that [she] made a mistake.”
The company affirmed that advertising revenue from the Mexican government accounts for less than six percent of its income.
In a bid to prove that the firings were not politically motivated, MVS also claimed that Rafael Cabrera, the “true author” of the investigation into the first lady’s mansion, was still working at the station.
Within minutes, Cabrera had denied this on Twitter:
8.- #MVSMiente al decir que sigo empleado. Es mentira. Tengo las fotos de los documentos que prueban mi liquidación
— Rafael Cabrera (@raflescabrera) March 20, 2015
“MVS is lying by saying that I’m still employed. I have photos of the documents that prove the liquidation [of my contract].”