By Mariana Muñoz
Carmen Aristegui, one of Mexico’s most well-known journalists, said her country “is experiencing a profound crisis in terms of human rights, including killings and disappearances of journalists and [other] people.”
For Aristegui, the mistreatment of journalists is a symbol of a damaged democracy.
The journalist, host of the program Aristegui on CNN Español and founder of digital site Aristegui Noticias, delivered the Austin Lecture on Contemporary Mexico on Nov. 2, which was organized by the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Aristegui talked about democracy and freedom in Mexico and the complicated way ahead for the country.
Much of the journalist’s speech focused on human rights violations faced by the country in recent years, including the issue of disappearances. Last July, the national register of missing persons reported a total of 28,474 missing people, according to Aristegui.
“We are talking about very serious human rights violations,” the journalist said.
Mexico has been classified as not free by human rights organization Freedom House. So far this year, 11 journalists have been killed in Mexico. In an additional case, a community radio host was run over by a police car in Oaxaca.
“Freedom of expression, freedom of information, the right to speak, to inform, is absolutely damaged, with cases of journalists who were murdered, censored, disappeared, in a list too long and too much in impunity in recent years,” Aristegui said.
The journalist emphasized that murder is not the only way in which freedom of expression is damaged; methods such as legal tools are also used.
Aristegui referred to the case of journalist Sergio Aguayo, who was sued by the former governor of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira, six months after the publication of his article in which he talked about the governor’s detention in Spain for a money laundering investigation. The case led to a one-week imprisonment.
“Humberto Moreira finally faces justice: the Spanish, that with this act show that Mexican institutions are virtuous in the protection of the corrupt (...) it is a shame that the Mexican institutions will not punish Moreira for putting Coahuila-- his state -- 36 billions of pesos (about US $1.8 billion) in debt, while in Spain he is seized for the irregular transfer of only 3.5 million pesos! (about US $184,000)” Aguayo wrote in the article published in Reforma.
Regarding the suit that sought a compensation of 10 million pesos (about US $500,000), Aguayo wrote on his site, “It will be a long and exhausting legal battle, but I have elements to build a good defense before the courts.”
Aristegui has been the target of lawsuits herself. One is from Joaquín Vargas, owner of the company MVS, for which Aristegui directed and presented a program for six years. In the suit “for moral damages,” she is asked to remove her book “La Casa Blanca de Peña Nieto, the story that rocked a government,” from circulation and to delete the preface, written by the journalist, before it is put back on the market.
“This is to intimidate, to annoy and to prevent these journalists from doing their work. They intend to use the judiciary to impose censorship, to harm journalists and to quench spirits of revenge,” Aristegui said in a video published in July through Aristegui Noticias, where the lawsuit was announced.
But, there is more to the story between Aristegui and MVS. In 2015, MVS dismissed two journalists from the special investigations unit of Aristegui’s radio program with the company. Critics said the dismissals were connected to investigations done by the reporters, including the Casa Blanca report. Aristegui then was dismissed from MVS after she demanded that her employees be reinstated.
The Case of Apatzingán
Despite her dismissal from MVS, Aristegui continues her fight for a free press in Mexico.
Aristegui Noticias, a digital site she created in 2012, has given journalists the possibility to publish reports that have been denied by other publications, as in the case of Laura Castellanos and her report about the massacre of Apatzingán.
In the early hours of Jan. 6, 2015, federal agents fired on unarmed civilians in Apatzingán in the state of Michoacán, leaving 16 dead and dozens injured.
The victims were part of the auto-defense group Fuerza Rural and were carrying out a sit-in at the gates of City Hall in Apatzingán. The event was initially classified by Alfredo Castillo, former commissioner for Michoacán, as a result of “friendly fire,” but Castellanos’ report revealed another truth about a crime against humanity.
Upon receiving the National Journalism Award for the report titled, #ItWastheFederales, Castellanos said that when she gave the report to El Universal, the newspaper refused to publish it, which she thought it was due to political and electoral issues. Castellanos is a freelance journalist who produced special reports for El Universal.
In her speech at UT Austin, Aristegui stated that Castellanos came to her with the story. Along with her news team, the journalist reviewed the report and determined that it was important to give it an outlet. Aristegui Noticias joined with magazine Reforma and news channel Univisión to prepare a packaged report. However, they eventually faced repercussions.
“Something happened that is part of our times, and that tells us about our vulnerabilities,” Aristegui said. “Our site received a digital attack that knocked us out the day before we published the story.”
The news portal suffered two cyberattacks that left it out of action for more than seven hours the first time and then five hours on the second occasion. Aristegui asked nonprofit organization Article 19 to host the report while they resolved the problem; they subsequently called on the authorities to guarantee the free flow of information, with special attention to digital media.
“I found Laura’s decision, to circumvent a phenomenon of censorship in this way, to be very important...And as these three media outlets, we agreed that we had to publish [the report.] In the first place, for the information itself, but also as a possibility for people who practice the same occupation and for journalists to open a space for this reporter who had not been able to inform Mexican society about a massacre as terrible as Apatzingán,” Aristegui said.
Aristegui explained that the report was later picked up by nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch and other international organizations, and that people who had bared witness felt vulnerable and fearful of the consequences that their testimony could bring.
“Fear is instilled in victims, fear is instilled in the media, and fear is a factor that certainly fails freedom of expression and the dissemination of issues relevant to Mexican society,” the journalist concluded.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.