Mexico: Code of Ethics v Freedom of Expression

Ms Carmen Aristegui, a well-known Mexican journalist was fired from a major Mexican radio station MVS Noticias, in February 2011, for “violating the station’s code of ethics” by “broadcasting rumour as news” and subsequently refusing to make an on-air apology.

Ms Aristegui’s dismissal came after she aired a controversial radio broadcast suggesting that the Presidency of the Republic should address the accusations of President Calderon’s alleged drinking problem.  According to Ms Aristegui, her statement  “was an editorial comment based on a news event” which followed an episode that occurred in the Congress, where a left-wing deputy of the Labour Party (Partido del Trabajo (PT) displayed a banner with an image of President Calderon together with the following text: “Would you let a drunk person drive your car? You wouldn’t, right? So, why do you let him drive your country?“ However, no evidence was presented to support such allegations.

Once fired, Ms Aristegui issued a statement claiming that MVS Noticias, which is waiting to renew its broadcasting licence, had come under official pressure to fire her.  With no incentive to apologise, Ms Aristegui further added that “An act like this is only imaginable in a dictatorship that nobody wants for Mexico: punishing for opining or questioning rulers.” The journalist remained firm in her position that the question as to whether or not President Calderon has alcohol problems was serious and warranted an official response from the presidency.

Ms Aristegui’s post-dismissal statements sparked some heated debates questioning freedom of the media in Mexico. Furthermore, the termination of her contract with the MVS raised several concerns about freedom of expression being compromised by an abuse of presidential authority.  The President’s Office denied all accusations of being involved in Ms Aristagui’s case of dismissal and according to some sources added that “the government respects the decision of MVS, but did not interfere in it.” In addition, the Officials avoided making any statements regarding the ‘said rumours’ about Mr Calderon, as they “did not merit a response.”  

Ms Aristegui has now returned to the radio station, thus ending the polemics about her dismissal.  The company has also admitted it would reconsider the content of its Code of Ethics, which has been published on the website. The code of ethics is an interesting point for further discussion, at what point does he or she ‘cross the Rubicon’? Undoubtedly, journalists should comply with a code of ethics to ensure quality of information and protection of the public. However, the case of Carmen Aristegui illustrates how the vagueness around ‘violation of ethics’ can be used to muzzle journalists who push their investigation too far to public officials’ taste.   Ethics should be respected without being distorted so as to weaken guarantees of freedom of expression.

While Ms Aristegui’s case has ended well for advocates of freedom of the media in Mexico, one may hope that her return to the radio station does not end all discussions on this ever dynamic area. The short-lived case could prompt further forward-looking deliberations and may say a precedent for future interpretations of freedom of speech under similar circumstances.

Kristina Velcikova


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