Friday, March 20, 2015

Today's Mexico City Headlines: Carmen Aristegui is now the face of Mexico's free speech aspirations. What exactly is she supposed to do about it? She still needs a microphone to call her own.

Two papers still have room on their front pages this morning for headlines about journalist Carmen Aristegui, fired last week by the media giant MVS. Reforma puts things mildly: “Disagreement prevails between MVS and Aristegui.” La Jornada is more blunt: “Total rupture between Aristegui and MVS.”
    That sounds like old news, but it derives from two developments yesterday. Aristegui more or less begged for her job back, suggesting dialogue to avoid a legal battle. “We want to get back on the air right away,” she said.
    No way, MVS responded. “Once again, you just can’t accept that you made a mistake,” was part of the response. Hardball.
    This is one of those controversies where the facts are not only fuzzy but almost irrelevant. People were protesting Aristegui’s firing before it happened. MVS dismissed two of her colleagues a week ago for misappropriation of the company logo. It was two days later, on Sunday, that MVS fired her for insisting on their reinstatement. We won’t deal with an ultimatum, MVS said.
    Ultimatum? Was she supposed to sell out her team members to keep her job? She wouldn’t be quite the hero she is today if she had, would she?
    All three fired journalists helped break the story of the first couple’s personal real estate dealings with a major government contractor (although MVS is now saying that a fourth employee was the true discoverer, and still has his job). Nobody had to put two and two together. The “four”— that she was being punished and silenced for shaming the president — was understood right away.
    There was no evidence of a connection, of course. But none was needed to turn Aristegui into a free speech cause celebre. For one thing, the silence-the-critic interpretation was so plausible, so richly precedented and so neatly in synch with the preconceptions of most Mexicans that it was and is beyond questioning in the public mind.
    For another, it doesn’t matter if the true motive was taking away Aristegui’s platform or, as MVS insists, enforcing employer-employee agreements. Firing her was clearly going to play out as the former. MVS knew that in advance. And almost assuredly, the Peña Nieto administration knew that in advance.
    Aristegui herself is convinced that the attack on her was planned. “We have the right to suppose that this is not spontaneous behavior,” she said.
    She also conjured up the ghost of presidents past, alluding indirectly to President Luis Echeverría’s infamous gutting of Excelsior’s editorial staff in a naked 1976 act of repression (described in KAGOM here). “México is not going to accept Echeverría-style practices,” she said.
    As though in response, historian and academic journalist Enrique Krauze pointed out that Julio Scherer, one of the ousted Excelsior editors, was about the same age then (50) as Aristegui is now. He started the news magazine Proceso soon after being shown the Excelsior door. “Founding a station with the support of her wide public following would be a creative solution,” Krauze suggested, not very helpfully. Would that it were that simple. 2015 is not 1976.
    In fact, the lack of viable options in the dominance of mega-media is a reason for the impasse. As the UNAM law professor and commentator John Ackerman put it, “If there were freedom of expression in Mexico, Aristegui wouldn’t be trapped in a ‘dialogue’ with MVS but would already be on another frequency.”
    Aristegui has won the battle of Twitterland, the blogosphere and the rest of the social media universe. Support has come, as is the custom now, from around the world. She has become the face and voice of a nation’s frustration with its free speech limitations. This is all for the good.
    But it comes to little if she doesn’t find a place to land where she can practice her craft to a similar-sized audience. That involves a caveat, as her fellow radio commentator and supporter Leonardo Curzio pointed out.
    “A (media) company isn't just a place to get paid,” he said. “You have to adjust to a series of guidelines. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to say whatever I want, and if I can’t, I’m going to make it into a free speech issue.'”

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