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Analysis: Carmen Aristegui's Firing And Mexico's Media-Gov't Dance

A supporter of fired journalist Carmen Aristegui holds a sign that reads in Spanish: "I'm with Aristegui" outside the area where she planned to give a press conference in Mexico City, Thursday, March 19, 2015. Too many people showed up for the event, so it was canceled for security purposes and will be held online. The crusading host of Mexico's top-rated national news radio program on MVS Radio was fired in a case that many fear is a blow to freedom of expression. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)Eduardo Verdugo / AP
/ Source: NBC News

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO -- The firing a few weeks ago of Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui and the cancellation of her popular morning radio program often are mentioned as prime examples of the limits on freedom of expression in Mexico today.

And how could it be otherwise, argue the critics of the Mexican government, if Aristegui was the one who uncovered perhaps the biggest scandal in the more than two years of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration: the "white house” investigation, which revealed an apparent conflict of interest between the president and his wife on one hand and a major government contractor on the other. (‘White house’ is the name of the private mansion purchased by the Peña Nieto family from the contractor).

In this view, Aristegui’s case has been a violation of the freedom of the press, part of a cloudy period in Mexico in the relationship between the media and power. The government feels cornered, burdened by alleged corruption scandals and is uncertain how to respond to each crisis.

It is the true that almost a month after her dismissal, Aristegui and her talented research team are off the air. But as with so much of what happens here among government, journalists and media owners, there are many unknowns in this case. It is not clear that the government gave a thumbs down to Aristegui, or that her absence from the radio means that there is no freedom of speech in Mexico today.

Those who support Aristegui insist that her firing has been an infringement on the freedom of expression, and they say they will not stand down until the radio host comes back on air. They have initiated legal proceedings against the government, arguing that the people’s right to information has been violated. They say that the government must act because the radio is a public concession to a private business group.

In dismissing Aristegui, the company MVS "violated our human right to freedom of thought and to receive information and ideas and content that reflect the country’s ideological pluralism, political, social and cultural,” said columnist Denise Dresser, in a call for Mexicans to join the lawsuit. Dresser was one of Aristegui’s collaborators and, through the years, has been one of the most critical voices of Mexican governments, including Peña Nieto’s.

In another legal case brought by Aristegui, a judge ruled on Tuesday that MVS must sit down with her and negotiate before a formal hearing on Aristegui's firing.

The Mexican government never said much publicly about Aristegui’s case. At most, officials offered to mediate between the parties, an offer that fell on deaf ears in the MVS company. The offer came from the president’s spokesman, who used to work as a lawyer for MVS.

The company launched a media campaign against Aristegui _ complete with full-page newspaper ads _ charging that she and her investigative team had violated company policy by endorsing the newly formed MexicoLeaks group without asking for permission.

Rather than apologize, Aristegui lashed back at MVS asking for an explanation of what she considered a political attack on her. The company then dismissed two of her collaborators and insisted they would take more editorial control of her program if she wanted to keep her job. But she refused.

On the surface, the company’s case may seem solid, but not many Mexicans believe MVS. The common view is that MexicoLeaks was a pretext for firing Aristegui, and that the company either was following government instructions, or acting on their own to be on good terms with power.

Neither would be extraordinary in a country where media owners are always looking over their shoulders because they depend heavily on government advertising or have other businesses that can benefit or be harmed by the government.

An alternate narrative is that Aristegui fell into a trap by refusing to accept the company’s reprimand. Had she swallowed her pride and done so, it may have revealed the company’s real intentions: either she would have kept her job, or it would have been clear they meant to fire her no matter what.

"Of course the government is satisfied that she has been fired," said El Financiero’s newspaper columnist, Raymundo Riva Palacio, "and it is also true that in recent months there has been a regression in the freedom of expression. But she (Aristegui) triggered the event that gave them the perfect excuse for the firing.”

Many people believe that MVS, and in particular its principal owner Joaquin Vargas, were fed up with Aristegui despite her show’s good ratings. They found the highly paid radio anchorwoman difficult to work with, and thought she was too independent, too critical of the government, and that her radio interviews often ran too long at the expense of advertising time. In this view, MexicoLeaks was a good excuse to end a broken professional relationship.

"Ultimately the matter became a subject of egos," said Riva Palacio. He added that in Mexico, the media moguls "don't defend freedom of the press, only the freedom to do business".

As with many controversies in Mexico, surely the whole truth will never be known about Aristegui’s case. Was it the government’s hand? Was the company motivated by its desire to be on good terms with the government? Or was it just a clash of two strong personalities _ the powerful and emotional rich man and the queen of Pulitzer Prize quality Mexican journalism?

The only thing certain is that the program, which was a daily visceral critique of the government and a unique space in Mexico for “independent, autonomous and critical journalism” in Dresser’s words, is on the air no more. This a loss for a massive Mexican radio audience.

But the famous journalist continues to have her own daily program on CNN en Español _ which airs on Mexican cable television _ and a column in the Mexican newspaper Reforma. There is also the website Aristegui Noticias where her investigative team _ the one that deserves the honor for the ‘white house’ scoop _ originally had the explosive story, even before it was mentioned on the radio program. And a publication such as Proceso magazine, which reprinted Aristegui’s story on the president’s house, is alive and combative as ever.

Is there a setback in Mexico’s freedom of expression? The answer depends on which narrative one wants to accept in a country where things are never black and white.