The Aristegui Case and Attacks on Freedom of Expression

On February 6, journalist Carmen Aristegui was abruptly fired from her job as anchor of the morning radio show for MVS Noticias. She was accused of “violating the company’s code of ethics” two days after reporting on a protest during which opposition deputies referred to President Felipe Calderón as an alcoholic. Aristegui had suggested that the government address the allegations and issue a formal response. After she was fired, she refused to apologize. Instead she issued an official statement denouncing undue pressure from the president’s office, calling it “incompatible with a democratic regime and the rule of law.” The incident has revived a strong national debate over political interference with freedom of expression. [On February 17, Aristegui was rehired by MVS.] Ed.

Far from being an isolated event, the dismissal of Carmen Aristegui from MVS occurred in the context of pressure on independent journalism, assassination of journalists, repression against community media and violation of the rights of communicators.

Two years ago Aristegui was the victim of censorship in another incident when her critical voice made Televisa and Prisa, the Spanish publishing consortium, uncomfortable. At the time both companies were trying to develop a closer relationship with the administration of Felipe Calderón. Aristegui was the host of the program Hoy por Hoy on W Radio, which was controlled by the Mexican broadcast network and the Spanish publishing company. The radio station decided not to renew her contract.

What follows is a quick survey of recent events related to the perverse relationship between media and political power—a relationship that has continued to exist regardless of which party is in power.

Harassment of Proceso

In the beginning of August of last year, the Secretary of Public Safety revealed that members of the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel had been captured. Several alleged members of the cartel were exhibited, along with weapons, money and other captured objects, including several issues of Proceso that featured Calderón’s war on drugs on the covers. To those in charge of the magazine, there was no doubt that the government clearly intended to link Proceso with organized crime.

In December, the magazine reported that it was the subject of a smear campaign that began nine days after it published statements from alleged drug trafficker Sergio Villarreal, “El Grande,” who indicated that he had met Felipe Calderón at a family party held by a PAN deputy.

During his Televisa network news program, anchor Joaquín López Dóriga broadcast a video of Villarreal allegedly testifying that Proceso and reporter Ricardo Ravelo had received payments in exchange for not mentioning “El Grande” in articles. Proceso rejected the accusations, which it said were orchestrated by Felipe Calderón and Televisa.

Supposedly Villarreal made the accusation against the magazine on November 4. Nevertheless, 17 days later “El Grande” appeared on the cover.

Proceso also published an excerpt from the book Los señores del narco by journalist Anabel Hernández, who revealed the Calderon administration’s decision to establish direct contact with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.

Televisa’s tirade against Proceso began after the magazine published these articles about Calderón and after the federal government had withdrawn all official publicity from the weekly.

On April 27, 2009, Proceso filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission charging the federal government with discrimination in its use of funds for official publicity.

In a democratic system of law, publicity paid for with public funds should be subject to state policies; subsidies to media that contribute to the consolidation of democracy can be considered a priority. But in Mexico official publicity is used as a tool to pressure critical journalism and as a resource to reward pro-government media. It is also an enormous discretionary transfer of public funds to private hands. This was what happened throughout the many years of one-party rule by the PRI. When the PAN came to power it didn’t shift gears, but instead maintained the system for its own benefit.

For Proceso, which has the largest circulation for a publication of its type, the problem is not one of money, but of the need to establish clear rules with regard to the relationship between the press and political power. Official publicity at all three levels of government should be regulated by law, as states and municipalities are just as arbitrary in their spending on publicity.

Finally, it should be noted that Proceso was also the publication that relied on freedom of information laws to petition an international court to prevent the destruction of the 2006 presidential electoral ballots. Millions of Mexicans considered the electoral results to be fraudulent. As a result, the electoral ballots were not allowed to be destroyed, pending a final decision that could lead to a recount.

Publicity Boycott of Monitor

On June 29, 2007, millions of radio listeners were astonished to learn that after 33 years, Radio Monitor was broadcasting for the last time. During that final broadcast, José Gutiérrez Vivó, general manager of Grupo Monitor, denounced the financial insolvency that resulted from the decision taken by the Vicente Fox administration—and later by Calderon’s—to withdrawal all government advertising from the program.

The attack on Gutiérrez Vivó’s company was carried out in the same abusive way that all government publicity funds are managed. These are public funds and should be managed transparently, subject to criteria that take into consideration the impact and nature of each media organization.

The PAN government’s authoritarian policy is no different from that of the PRI during the Echeverría administration, when the government crushed the newspaper Excelsior, or the policies of José López Portillo, who famously justified the publicity boycott against Proceso during his administration with a phrase that sums up the patrimonial concept of power still in force today: “I (don’t) pay you to beat me up.”

Aggression against Contralínea

On April 10 of last year the offices of the magazine Contralinea were raided. Files and financial data were destroyed; computers and other valuable objects were stolen. This was the fourth attack on the magazine during the Calderón administration.

Not only were the premises of the magazine attacked: Since 2007 Contralinea journalists have been the subject of harassment, including death threats from government contractors, civil and criminal complaints, and a publicity embargo. The magazine’s director, Miguel Badillo, was arrested and an arrest warrant issued against reporter Ana Lilia Pérez.

The magazine has published articles on government and business corruption, white-collar crime, matters of national security, drug trafficking and money laundering, as well as articles on social conflicts, extreme poverty, and the displacement of Indian communities, among other issues.

On September 14, 2009, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) issued recommendation 57/2009, which determined that the federal government and the judiciary had violated the reporters’ human rights and engaged in censorship by using libel law to prosecute free speech.

Repression against community radio stations

According to the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), around 80 community radio stations have been raided and violently shut down during the Calderón administration, a repressive policy that inhibits freedom of expression and the preservation of culture.

The criminal cases filed against those who operate these media are another example of the PAN government’s persecution of socially oriented radio stations. The use of criminal law in place of administrative procedures available under the Federal Law of Radio and Television against those with a vocation for social service and a desire to operate legally is a serious setback to human rights.

Apparently the system is terrified of those who from precarious financial and technological conditions speak truth to the media powers that seek to accumulate enormous wealth and in the process ravage a community’s culture.

Rights and Freedoms in danger

According to the magazine Zócalo, during the Calderón administration there have been 371 attacks against journalists and 21 assassinations; 208 attacks and 31 deaths were reported during the Fox administration.

Last year the CNDH received 80 complaints for alleged violations of the rights of communicators. Attacks on journalists compromise the rule of law and deny freedom of expression. They also prove the ineptitude of authorities in preventing and investigating crime.

When political power represses critical and independent media, it closes the circle of impunity that subjects human rights and the freedom of citizens to great risks. That’s why the Aristegui case has ignited a discussion on the right to information and the need for legal reform to make access to media more democratic.

Codes of journalistic ethics or media regulation? In reality that’s a false dichotomy. Both types of regulation are necessary. Legal norms should guarantee a minimum of conditions to ensure the right to information and freedom of expression. Ethical codes represent a maximum standard to which journalists should aspire in practicing their profession in a socially responsible way.

That’s why the media should be in the hands of communicators and social and community groups—not just in the hands of businessmen who place economic gain above society’s right to information and freedom of expression.

And what about government concessions for the use of radio frequencies that belong to the nation? Should those decisions be made by the government or by a representative entity that guarantees plurality in the media and is not tempted to use those concessions as a means of control?

As Aristegui pointed out, it’s impossible not to remember that MVS is in the process of renewing its concessions. And it is doing so under a scheme that, in the absence of regulatory reform, depends on the president.

Alfredo Acedo is communications director and advisor to the National Union of Regional Autonomous Campesino Organizations. [la Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas. México.]

Translator: Barbara Belejack