Correction: A previous version of this column misstated the reason for Carmen Aristegui’s 2011 firing. This version has been updated.

Steve Fisher is an investigative journalist based in Mexico.

MEXICO CITY — Two weeks ago, the highly respected Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui co-published an investigation showing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s hand-selected director of the federal news agency Notimex was using fake Twitter accounts to attack journalists, including her. But the response wasn’t condemnation or calls for a serious investigation: instead AMLO, as the president is known, said in a news conference that he believed both sides.

In the meantime, there were sustained, pro-AMLO bot attacks made to trend on social media and a volley of pro-AMLO individuals joining in to make sexist and deeply personal attacks on Aristegui, an investigative journalist with a long trajectory in Mexico. On Tuesday, another trending topic emerged saying, #ApagaAristegui, or turn off Aristegui.

In 2011, hundreds of Mexicans took to the streets to protest her firing from her popular radio show. Today, those who speak out in her defense online are drowned out by bots that shape and control a toxic narrative — even though she had the facts.

Her news site, Aristegui Noticias, published leaked text messages that revealed damning evidence of institutional attacks on her and others, sparking calls for an investigation. But the criticism has never been about the veracity of her work. (Her outlet is the most trusted online news site in the country, according to an annual Reuters survey.)

It’s about attacking the messenger.

Mexico is already the most dangerous country on the continent for journalists. More regional reporters have been killed here than any other place on the Western Hemisphere. To this alarming situation, we add the sophisticated digital campaigns to discredit their work, which also puts their lives in danger.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times, El País and the Wall Street Journal published investigations showing the Mexican government was vastly undercounting covid-19 victims. Pro-AMLO bots once again launched outlandish attacks against the reporters on Twitter, in particular against the Times, calling the outlet #prensaprostituida, or prostituted press.

Again, instead of discussing the merits of the story, the bots attacked the messenger. They made numerous racist slurs against Times correspondent Azam Ahmed with one person telling him to “get down off of his camel.” They told El País journalist Javier Lafuente to go back to Spain.

Bots made the hashtag #PrensaProstituida a trending topic by manipulating the Twitter algorithm. And real people provided wind to its sails.

Some analysts, reporters and activists engaged with the reporting in good faith, but a host of AMLO supporters — including, inexplicably, some international reporters — attacked the journalists behind the stories. Any healthy discussion about the facts presented in the investigations was lost in the mayhem.

And then the president piled on, not to deny the reports, but to join his supporters in attacking the integrity of the news outlets.

In a morning news conference, AMLO said the Times was “a famous newspaper but had little ethics, and in this case it’s evident they didn’t do a good job.” His deputy secretary of Health hinted, without evidence, that the outlets coordinated in a conspiracy to attack the government.

Still, no government official denied there were systemic failures to account for covid-19 victims. They knew better.

In fact, Mexico City’s mayor quickly launched an independent committee to investigate the unreported deaths after the Times story found there were three times the number of deaths than officially reported. Another outlet followed the story with their own reporting confirming the Times’s story.

Since the beginning of the current administration, battle lines to criticize and attack journalists have become increasingly blurry. The murkiness has made seeking out the truth that much more difficult and dangerous.

The investigations mentioned here resulted in important changes, something that in another time would have been held up as an example of what a free press can achieve.

But not today.

Critics who applauded the audacious work of these outlets in the times of the previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto, have turned against the same journalists in the times of AMLO, as if they somehow lost their rigor in the past two years.

The developments are a sobering transformation against an already embattled press corps here at a time when the work is more important than ever.

The Mexican president’s increasingly dangerous rhetoric has fueled the fires that foment confusion about the truth, whether it’s exposing coordinated attacks against journalists by a federal agency or about acknowledging those who have lost their lives to this global pandemic.

What will not change is the resolve of journalists to continue to hold this administration accountable, just as they have administrations past.

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