Mexico’s Journalists Grab a Tech Shield as their Fight Against the Establishment Escalates

MéxicoLeaks, which allows whistleblowers to anonymously submit information, has already got some people fired.

Mexico, a country where tens of thousands have been killed in drug-related violence, and where government officials have been complicit in corruption, murders, and disappearances, seems like a natural place to launch a safe, anonymous way for sources to get information to journalists.

That’s the idea behind MéxicoLeaks, a platform launched this month by a consortium of news outlets and advocacy groups in Mexico. The site allows whistleblowers to anonymously submit information via the Tor browser, which masks their location.

But MéxicoLeaks has already caused a scandal, culminating in the firing of one of Mexico’s most popular journalists, radio personality Carmen Aristegui, and her staff of reporters. Although MéxicoLeaks promises a secure channel for activists who otherwise face brutal retribution for speaking out, its launch comes at a time when other protections for journalists, including their job security and physical safety, are crumbling.

Aristegui and her reporters say that the radio network that runs their show used their involvement with MéxicoLeaks as a pretext to fire them. The real goal, they believe, was to suppress oppositional journalism. “They seemed so determined to strike us down,” Irving Huerta, a 27-year-old investigative journalist with Aristegui’s unit, told The Intercept in an interview.

Staffers on Aristegui’s program had previously clashed with the network over exposés on the First Lady of Mexico’s real estate dealings, among other critical reports, Huerta says, and he believes powerful people wanted to see the show end.

“It seems that there was something bigger behind them, telling them what to do, giving them confidence and support even in the face of how this has discredited them, the many listeners they’ve lost,” Huerta said.

When MéxicoLeaks launched, on March 11, MVS, the radio station that airs Aristegui’s show, abruptly distanced itself from the initiative in ads that ran on its own network. Huerta and another reporter were fired soon after, ostensibly because they had not asked permission before using the company logo in conjunction with the project. Aristegui demanded they be reinstated, and then, on March 16, her show was terminated. A huge public outcry has ensued, with protests even from political commentators who generally disagree with Aristegui.

Before Aristegui was fired, MVS also put forward a new set of guidelines subjecting news shows to evaluation by outside companies, giving MVS management more input into news programming, and requiring reporters to disclose their personal ties to religious groups, political parties, and other associations.

“It was a series of rules that were obviously impossible, unacceptable,” Huerta said. “It was an attempt to pressure our working conditions.”

Huerta suspects outside players influenced MVS’s decision. But then again, he noted, their radio station is only one of many businesses of the family conglomerate that owns it, “so who knows where their true interests are?”

The fight over the guidelines was not the first time Aristegui had clashed with MVS higher-ups. She was fired (and then rehired) in 2011, after she ran with allegations that then-president Felipe Calderón had a drinking problem. Last fall, reporters with her team published an investigation into La Casa Blanca (the White House), an opulent Mexico City mansion bought on favorable terms by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s wife from a top government contractor. The scandal shook Peña Nieto’s government, which was already losing face over its response to the disappearance of 43 students from a college in the southern state of Guerrero.

MVS told Aristegui’s team not to publish the Casa Blanca story, Huerta said. “They told Carmen and the reporters on that story, ‘If you come out with this, it’s going to be very bad for our other businesses. We’re going to be crushed.’” Ultimately, Aristegui’s team ran the report independently of the station, on their own website, but continued to follow the scandal on the radio show. (MVS told The New York Times over the weekend, “It’s false that we censored Carmen Aristegui from broadcasting the report of the White House.”)

Of course, journalists in Mexico face more lethal forms of suppression. Two years into Peña Nieto’s presidency, 10 reporters have been assassinated, and four have disappeared, according to the free speech advocacy organization Article 19. Journalists regularly face attacks and threats from both narco-traffickers and government officials and are often detained. In its annual report on the state of media in Mexico, Article 19 found that the frequency of attacks is on the rise under Peña Nieto, and many of them can be traced to government officials (I met Huerta while in Mexico last week at a conference hosted by Article 19, for which the group furnished travel and lodging).

Sometimes censorship takes a surreal turn. A weekly newsmagazine in Cancun regularly has its issues faked, with critical articles replaced by ones favorable to the local government.

MéxicoLeaks won’t solve direct attacks on journalists, but it could be critical to help sources and citizen activists protect themselves. (The tech behind it is similar to SecureDrop, which The Intercept uses.)

“We’ve had sources who come to us saying, ‘I have very important information, but I don’t want my name revealed, I fear for my life,’” Huerta said. “And before, we’ve told them to send us things by mail, because we hadn’t gotten to this point of having secure electronic communication.”

Mexicans have turned to Twitter, especially, to spread security alerts and denounce violence from cartels and government officials, but they do so at their own peril.

Huerta cited the example of the activist known by her twitter handle, “Felina,” who tweeted about cartel activities and posted regularly to an activist website. Cartels flyered the city, offering tens of thousands of dollars in rewards for anyone who helped unmask the site’s administrators. Felina — apparently a doctor named Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio — was found out, and her killers tweeted photos of her execution. “Close your account don’t put your families at risk like I did,” read one final message.

Citizens in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz have been jailed on terrorism charges for tweeting about reported gang attacks.

Huerta sees the overwhelming public response in support of him and his colleagues on Aristegui’s program as a sign of the need “not just to safeguard this news program that we had, but to protect the whole profession of journalism.”

“Because there’s an attempt to turn back to the authoritarian practices of years past,” he said, “which we can’t permit in a democratic society.”

Photo: Eduardo Verdugo/AP


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