THE “WHITE HOUSE”

The Big-Money Scandal Rocking Mexico

The sacking of journalist Carmen Aristegui raises serious questions about President Peña Nieto’s commitment to press freedom—after she raised serious questions about him.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters

MEXICO CITY — Carmen Aristegui, a feisty and popular Mexican radio host, published the kind of story every journalist dreams of last November. Aristegui revealed that Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, and his wife, the actress Angélica Rivera, own an immense mansion in one of Mexico City’s most expensive neighborhoods.

The aptly dubbed “white house” is impressive: marble floors, a spa area, adjustable lighting in fancy hues (take a look: it’s called “Casa La Palma.” Built by renowned architect Miguel Ángel Aragonés, the place has been valued at around $7 million, a heavy burden on anyone’s finances, let alone Peña Nieto’s, who has worked in the public sector most of his life, or Rivera, a successful soap opera star but no Sofia Vergara.

It wasn’t the size of the house or its price tag that turned Aristegui’s scoop into an international scandal, however. The investigation revealed that Grupo Higa, the company which sold the house to Rivera, had a long history of ties to the Peña Nieto-led administration in the State of Mexico (not to be confused with Mexico, the State), from where the young governor leapt to the presidency in 2012, returning to power what was supposed to be a reformed Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after a dozen years in opposition.

The friendship between Juan Armando Hinojosa, the company’s owner, and then-governor Peña Nieto had proved bountiful. Aristegui’s team discovered that, during Peña Nieto’s six-year term in the State of Mexico, Higa built hospitals, highways and received a wide array of contracts. And Peña Nieto’s special relationship with Hinojosa didn’t end there. Once his friend became president, the construction tycoon kept on getting lucrative deals, including part of a massive $3 billion waterway and a $3.7 billion project to build Mexico’s first bullet train, a contract the government abruptly cancelled just three days before Aristegui was to publish the “Casa Blanca” report.

The scandal shook Mexican politics. After the first lady made matters worse with an awkward video posted on her YouTube channel, Peña Nieto saw his approval numbers dip well below the 40 percent mark. Already reeling from his clumsy handling of the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero in September, he has not recovered since.

For Aristegui and her team, it was a coup to remember, and deservedly so. After all, elsewhere, conflict of interest of this magnitude might have led to the government’s collapse.

Alas, in Mexico, nothing much happened. After 90 days, Peña Nieto chose Virgilio Andrade, a PRI insider, as his new Secretary of Public Function. Andrade was instructed to report any wrongdoing committed by, well, his boss. Such an outcome seems unlikely. Almost five months into the scandal, no impropriety has been confirmed; no one is out of a job.

No one, that is, but the journalist who got the ball rolling in the first place.

Last week, MVS, a privately owned media corporation, fired Aristegui as host of its morning radio newscast. Her team of journalists left with her.

Aristegui’s abrupt dismissal has set off an uproar. Her 3.6 million Twitter followers quickly turned the company’s controversial decision into a worldwide trending topic.

Many Mexican journalists (myself included) have expressed concerns over the country’s still fragile plurality of opinions. Most voices suggest this is an open-and-shut case of censorship: the Peña Nieto government flexing its authoritarian muscle, exacting revenge over the Casa Blanca scandal and getting rid of Aristegui just in time for the 2015 legislative (and local) elections.

But things might not be so clear-cut.

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The current conflict began a few weeks ago when a couple of Aristegui’s reporters, Daniel Lizárraga and Irving Huerta, added the MVS brand name to the list of supporters behind Mexicoleaks, a whistle-blowing portal. They did so without the company’s permission. Enraged, MVS fired the two journalists, citing a “lack of trust.” It might have been brusque, but the decision makes sense: Try using your employer’s name without consent in the United States and watch your friendly HR department pack your things in tidy boxes.

Aristegui, on the other hand, saw the departure of her reporters as the first salvo in a struggle for editorial independence. She immediately demanded their reinstatement. MVS rejected the ultimatum and fired her as well. Upon her dismissal, Aristegui cried censorship. She referred to other episodes of alleged restriction, like a set of guidelines the company published a couple of days into the scandal which took editorial control away from the station’s radio hosts—Aristegui is one of three—and into the hands of the news director (again, nothing out of the ordinary in American newsrooms).

Aristegui has said she “suspects” she’s paying the price for her investigative reporting: “The way they did things leads us to believe, although I have no proof, that the government is behind all this,” she argued during a press conference last week. A while later, during its own press conference, MVS denied any outside involvement and blamed Aristegui: “We cannot accept ultimatums,” said the company, before pointing out that Aristegui’s contract had just recently been renewed, well after the “Casa Blanca” affair.

This is not the first time Aristegui has blamed alleged censorship for her professional disagreements. Before MVS, she had an equally successful radio show on W Radio, another widely heard station. Aristegui was assigned a news director, who suggested she abide by another quite basic set of rules including respecting scheduled commercial breaks, joining daily editorial meetings or even getting to her show on time. She eventually declined to renew her contract. Once she left, what had been a simple difference of opinion quickly became, in her retelling, an attack on her freedom as a journalist. (Full disclosure: I worked at W Radio right after Aristegui, on a completely different time slot).

Still, even if Aristegui’s dismissal wasn’t directly orchestrated by the Peña Nieto government, the facts remain stark: The journalist who researched and published a masterwork of investigative reporting that exposed a massive conflict of interest deep within the upper echelons of Mexican politics has been fired.

At the very least, Mexican media have temporarily lost one of their most vibrant voices. At the very worst, the ways of the old PRI—the intolerant, conniving party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century—are back in full force. In a country where freedoms have long been under a stage of siege, both outcomes seem ominous.