“The best protection that a journalist can have is probably to keep on publishing stuff, to keep on waging a public battle.” Interview.
Mexican journalist and TV and radio anchorwoman Carmen Aristegui is widely regarded as one of Mexico’s leading journalists and opinion leaders, and is best known for her critical investigations of the Mexican government. She is the anchor of the news program Aristegui on CNN en Español, she writes regularly for the opinion section of the newspaper Reforma, and runs Aristeguinoticias.com, a news and analysis site. In 2012 she was named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour in recognition of her “struggle for freedom of expression, and her commitment to the defense of those who often have no voice in the media, as well as her work for democracy and rule of law in Mexico”, in 2016 she was chosen as one of BBC’s 100 Women, and in 2017 as one of 50 “World’s greatest leaders” by Fortune magazine. She has received many awards for her work, among them the National Award for Journalism (five times), the Gabriel García Márquez Prize, the PEN Mexico Prize and, recently, the 2017 Casa Amèrica Catalunya Prize for the Freedom of Expression in Latin America, which she received, to a full house, at Barcelona City Hall on July 19 – a prize extended, though her, to all the journalists in Mexico, “a high-risk country for our profession”, as she herself has said.
Indeed: in 2017, Mexican journalists Miroslava Breach, Ricardo Monluí, Cecilio Pineda, Maximino Rodríguez, Filiberto Álvarez and Javier Valdez have been assassinated in the states of Guerrero, Veracruz, Chihuahua, Baja California Sur and Sinaloa; and from 2000 to 2016, 105 journalists lost their lives violently in Mexico according to data from the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes committed against Freedom of Expression.
Aristegui’s popularity in Mexico – and beyond – is huge, as she is known for giving voice to Mexicans who would otherwise not be heard or seen because they criticize the country’s most powerful institutions, for explaining, celebrating, and exposing what is great and wrong in Mexico – and in the hemisphere -, and for her courage, which serves as an example for journalists, especially women.
The daughter of Basque refugees from the Spanish Civil War, Carmen Aristegui has clashed with Mexican political and judicial authorities defending her team’s rigorous and proven information on such issues as a prostitution network linked to the ruling party, a number of cases of clerical pederasty, and the so-called White House case, an investigation that pointed directly to a conflict of interests of president Enrique Peña Nieto.
Oleguer Sarsanedas: Why do they kill journalists?
Carmen Aristegui: For a variety of reasons, depending on each place, but essentially for what they publish – for reporting on matters related to drug trafficking and the collusion of authorities, for trying to reveal some important matters for their community. The murders impact states of the republic, regions and municipalities – they happen at every level. Journalists get killed, fundamentally, for what they are publishing, or are going to publish.
OS: And who kills them?
CA: A number of studies have been conducted on this in Mexico, by organizations that defend freedom of expression, which show that a significant percentage of the deaths are related to local authorities. Others are most probably related to organized crime. But part of the greater drama is that there are no investigations that can help us clarify this. What I am telling you is, finally, what one can suppose, or guess, but there is no consistent evidence to say why they are killed, or who killed them. Impunity throws a large veil over the matter.
OS: The aim of violence against journalists is to get them to give up, right?
OS: Why aren’t you giving up?
CA: Because we must face the situation and one of the ways of doing so – in fact, the best weapon we have, I think – is to keep on publishing stuff, to keep on saying things. The best protection that a journalist like me can possibly have, considering my contributions to national and international media, like CNN, is, I believe, to keep on publishing. It seems to me that the best protection that can be had, if that is what we are talking about, is to keep on waging a public battle. The other option would be to go home and hide.
OS: Nevertheless, despite the risks, there are people who continue to devote themselves to journalism not only in big cities, but in small towns, in municipalities. What prompts them to do so?
CA: What prompts us who devote ourselves to journalism is the idea, the conviction that information is essential for a country, for a community, for human beings. It is inherent to our human condition to communicate and report on what is important to others. I am convinced that what prompts journalists to do so is precisely the conviction that information is a decisive, powerful tool for any society.
OS: But if journalism could be said to be a public service, how can it be compatible with private ownership of the media and, even more so, with the concentration of media ownership?
CA: What a huge dilemma! Of course, this is a great issue – the great issue – for the media globally, the great question that has to be raised from the point of view of democracy itself, from the point of view of public interest. In very many cases, the current design certainly does not favour freedom of expression. Clearly, in countries such as Mexico, where we have media hyper-concentration, where there is a duopoly in television, radio is concentrated in a few hands, and where corporate interests, or corporate-political interests, or extra-journalistic alliances are set above the general interest, this affects – all the time, every minute – the quality of information, editorial freedom, the possibilities of having a say. This is obviously an unresolved question and the large media conglomerates are increasingly appropriating that essential element of democracy: information.
OS: You have just been awarded a prize for freedom of expression. What is freedom of expression for you?
CA: Freedom of expression, when it comes to journalists, is the possibility of openly saying what one knows, what one has been researching, what one has discovered, what one thinks, without fear of being murdered, harassed, censored or hurt. It is being able to say the things that one knows, that it is one’s duty to share with the audience without fear of getting hurt for doing it.
OS: There are several ways in which the press can be intimidated. Violence is one, of course, but there are others. Namely: you and some other journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates have been spied on. Please tell us about this.
CA: The New York Times has brought into the open an investigation, which was carried out by Artículo 19, an organization called R3D, and SocialTIC, with the scientific collaboration of a multidisciplinary lab of the University of Toronto, which reviewed cell phones – including my own and that of my son Emilio, who was a minor at that time – and found that our devices has been infected with a very powerful, very expensive malware, called Pegasus, which is developed by an Israeli company and which is so intrusive and powerful that it is sold only to governments. The Mexican government acquired it and this is a fact, because we had access to the documents that prove it: it was contracted by the Attorney General of the Republic, by the Mexican Army and by the intelligence system, the CISEN.
It was bought by the Mexican government, which used it improperly and illegally against activists, journalists and people who, like me, should never have been spied on. Peña Nieto’s government did it, and it did so with such an intrusive tool that it is not only capable of capturing your e-mails, your whatsapps, your messages, but of activating your cell phone camera and microphone, so that the spying can take place in real time – that is, all the time: when you are taking a bath, when you are having coffee, right now, when you are doing absolutely private, or public activities. It is a rather sinister tool because of its implications. Why did Peña Nieto’s government use it against – even – a teenager? This is something that indicates fairly unbalanced elementary codes, including spy codes: spying on a teenager to see if anything came out that could be used to harm his mother. This is a sinister conduct on the part of the government, which comes to show that it has no scruple in using public money to acquire something that it should be using, if at all, against the big drug traffickers, or to investigate what it should investigate, but that it is using instead in this way.
OS: There is another recent study from the University of Oxford which points out that the Mexican government has been promoting troll groups to interfere with, intoxicate and manipulate online debates on public-interest issues – in order to dynamite, so to speak, the very matter journalists work on.
CA: This also comes to show what kind of government Mexico has: a government that is capable not only of spying on us with Pegasus, but of setting in motion intoxication mechanisms to interfere with the spontaneous communication of citizens. They carry out designed, directed, massive campaigns aimed at, indeed, blowing up the main asset that a journalist, or a human rights advocate, or a public figure who wants to do something that is critical for the government, has: credibility. They invent stories, they create situations and they slander for, as the saying goes, “if you slander, something always lingers on”. The only option we have left is to appeal to the people’s own communication, so that the people themselves, the netizens, counteract these campaigns which, by the way, are quite noticeable – they are bad campaigns, in fact, precisely because you notice them. They do have a positive effect, though, to the extent that people are denouncing them in their conversations. But it is an uneven struggle, a highly uneven one, because if people do not focus on them, they keep on running around and around, eroding that main asset of ours: credibility.
OS: To what extent do you think that mobilized people, who use electronic means and are active in publishing, spreading information, and promoting participation can counteract these campaigns?
CA: That is precisely what these campaigns are aimed at – precisely that, which is, of course, our great hope. Our great hope is that people can find strong, horizontal paths for communicating and for mobilizing. Whenever we talk about these issues, we tend to mention the Arab Spring and similar movements. Well, of course something like that could happen if people were allowed to communicate freely. I am pretty sure that if there were no such grotesque interferences, Mexico would undoubtedly be at another stage. But scientific studies of social media demonstrate – geometrically – how conversations are interfered. A consultancy by the name of Atqat Mesura, for example, conducted a study of social media in Mexico when the oil reform law was passed – an unthinkable reform in a country like ours, which fondly remembers Lázaro Cárdenas and where public ownership of oil resources was thought to be set in stone; so much so that ex-president Ernesto Zedillo went so far as to say: “not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined a reform like Peña Nieto’s.” This study was thus made at a time when people should have been discussing this far-reaching reform, but what actually happened was that nothing happened. It seemed as if nothing was going on, and it was quite extraordinary: a radical, privatizing reform was underway and there were no people out in the streets, not the predicted revolution, not what analysts and political scientists assumed would happen in a case such as this.
A key element to explain this is the fact that social media were interfered with in such a way, that as soon as a conversation was getting off the ground, it was immediately clamped. The only space where Mexican society could actually have blown off steam – on this issue the mainstream media were absolutely under control, no debates were aired on free TV – was precisely social media. And what they did was invade them: the geometric images in the study show how the conversations were getting dismantled – the physical behavior of spontaneous conversations is quite different from that of conversations which are being interfered -, and they show the sheer size of the operation – it was a huge intervention – which collapsed the possibility of communicating through social media. Thus, the reform was passed, with two or three critical expressions, but nothing like what one would expect in a country like Mexico. So, the problem is how do we get the government, or the powers that are interested in preventing certain things from happening, to stop carrying out these practices. I do not know if they are ever going to lay down some rules, if they will forbid them, but what I do know is that the battle is, right now, very uneven, because the spontaneity of the people is not strong enough to counteract all of this. They have hijacked this communication space too, and that greatly damages democracy.
OS: And it damages the possibility of new movements, new political formations emerging…
CA: Exactly. That is the main issue. Where can they emerge if not in the social media? If people lack public spaces where they can establish contact, and organize, in a country like Mexico, which does not have a strong participatory tradition, to say the least…
OS: You have said: “The great challenge for journalists and citizens is to prevent fear from conquering us”. How do you do this?
CA: You must respect fear, because it is intrinsically human. Fear is useful, it has a cause, it comes to you to warn you that something bad could happen. And this, of course, spurs you to redouble your defenses, to raise your rigor – in the case of journalists, to raise your standards, so as not to get things wrong, or not that wrong. We must use fear to strengthen things. The great battle is to prevent fear from stopping us, from paralyzing us. How do you do this? It is up to each of us: everyone has to overcome his or her own fear and take advantage of it. Fear should not inhibit, it should invigorate.
Carmen Aristegui is a top Mexican journalist whose work on radio and television news programs stands out for her open attitude towards issues not usually addressed by journalists in Mexico and for the debates she has generated as a result of the information she has disclosed.
Oleguer Sarsanedas is a writer, journalist and political analyst. He is the sub-editor of democraciaAbierta.
Courtesy: Open Democracy