Respected Mexican journalist fired for addressing Calderon drinking rumor

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 6:21 PM

In a well-rehearsed act of political theater, a group of leftist opposition congressmen unfurled a banner in the Chamber of Deputies bearing a large photo of a sleepy-faced President Felipe Calderon and the challenge: "Would you let a drunk drive your car? No, right? So why would you let him run the country?"

Gossip has long circulated among Mexico's Twittering classes that El Senor Presidente likes a drink or three. But the stunt, during an open session of Congress last week, pushed private rumors into the public arena.

On Friday, the popular and respected journalist Carmen Aristegui tackled the question straight up in her morning drive-time radio program.

She was fired Monday. And now the affair is really buzzing.

On Wednesday evening, Calderon's personal secretary, Roberto Gil, defended his boss at a brief, slightly awkward press announcement at Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. Awkward, because the subject of Calderon's drinking was never specifically mentioned.

Instead, Gil said that in the last year Calderon attended 1,779 public events, or about seven a day. That sounds like a lot, but it is true that Mexican cable news scrolls images all day long of a dutiful Calderon cutting countless ribbons and endlessly standing at attention at military parades. The man can do symposia.

"During the four years of his administration, he has never missed any event because of health problems," Gil said. "This work pace is the best proof of his good health, physical strength and integrity."

In a statement, the president's office said it had nothing to do with Aristegui's sacking and stressed that "the federal government has been scrupulously respectful of freedom of expression."

At a news conference Wednesday, Aristegui said basically the opposite. She asserted that she was dismissed by MVS News, the owner of the radio station, for refusing to apologize for impertinent questions raised on air about Calderon and alcohol.

Aristegui claimed that the company is under government pressure because it is awaiting approval of an application to renew its concession. She said Calderon's press office called MVS to demand a public apology.

"I recognize that the subject matter is tough, but it is in no way abusive or defamatory. At no point was there a transgression of the code of ethics," Aristegui said. "The health status and degree of equilibrium of a president is a matter of clear public interest."

Let it be said that Calderon has never been photographed frolicking in a fountain. The rumors of problem drinking have not been supported by any hard evidence, and some commentators suggest that Aristegui was irresponsible in airing scandalous accusations backed up by nothing more than a banner waved by political opponents in a legislative body where the four-hour lunch with a couple of tequilas, wine and a brandy is the norm.

But Aristegui is no shock jock. Her smart, tough, topical nightly interview show on CNN en Espanol, which continues to air, transformed her into a media celebrity, a female Anderson Cooper for Latin America, minus the tight black T-shirts.

"An act like this is only imaginable in a dictatorship that nobody wants for Mexico, where we are punished for opining or questioning rulers," Aristegui said at her news conference, adding that she had nothing to apologize for.

There is a sorry history of media control by the government in Mexico, where, under the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held sway for seven decades, so-called independent journalists lined up for weekly pay envelopes stuffed with bribes. Even today, many publications survive almost entirely on government advertisements.

Tequilagate, of course, proved immediately irresistible. Reforma newspaper columnist Sergio Sarmiento pointed out that "the greatest damage of the firing of Aristegui is to the president himself."

In the pages of El Universal newspaper, meanwhile, journalist and activist Lydia Cacho wondered why Calderon didn't follow the lead of his predecessor, Vicente Fox. When asked during his term in office whether he took the antidepressant Prozac, Fox answered simply, "No."

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