Mexico's Carmen Aristegui shares tips for journalists fearful of libel lawsuits

by Elyssa Pachico
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous
Carmen Aristegui

Mexico’s investigative journalists aren’t just threatened by violent criminal actors — they’re also increasingly facing the threat of aggressive, expensive lawsuits filed by elites seeking to intimidate the press.

Journalist Carmen Aristegui, who runs investigative news outlet Aristegui Noticias, is one of the country’s more prominent journalists facing multiple such lawsuits. The Aristegui Noticias team gained international attention for breaking the so-called “Casa Blanca” story in 2015, which exposed how President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government may have favored a government contractor.

Aristegui Noticias' stories on the Casa Blanca scandal; the involvement of federal security agents in a massacre; and a noted public official’s prostitution ring is why the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is awarding them with the 2016 Knight International Journalism Award, which recognizes high-impact reporting.

IJNet sat down with Aristegui to discuss how she is handling her legal troubles and her advice for other journalists facing similar threats:

On how lawsuits are threatening investigative journalists in Mexico

As a Mexican journalist, I’ve had to live through what’s become a type of trend in Mexico — using the justice system to hurt journalists. Filing suits not in search of justice, but as punishment for having published something. Sadly, there’s a couple of cases right now of journalists facing these kinds of lawsuits in our country. I’m one of them.

I’ve received a sentence in one lawsuit, a case that moved very quickly — surprisingly quickly for a country like Mexico where a lawsuit can go on for years. I was declared guilty of committing a crime in something the judge called, ‘excessive use of freedom of expression,’ and ‘excessive use of freedom of speech.’ That’s what the sentence says…

So I need to keep fighting in the courts over my defense, my right to express my ideas, inform Mexican society and express my points of view. It’s incredible that a journalist needs to spend a great deal of time, a great deal of energy, a great deal of emotion on defending yourself in court against censorship.

The emotional cost of facing multiple lawsuits

It’s tough for a journalist — or for a person — to face not one but several lawsuits one after another, the goal of which is to harass you, to throw you off balance, to drain your energy, and to make your life impossible. I faced these lawsuits with those mixed feelings you get from facing a power that wants to harms you — the highest power in Mexico, seeking retribution against journalists who exposed something they haven’t been able to explain.

On one hand it does generate uncertainty, unease. But on the other hand, you gain a lot of strength if you have — as I do — a fair amount of solidarity. I’ve received many messages of solidarity from the public, from other journalists, from human rights organizations, from people close to us, and lawyers like Javier Quijano, Xavier Cortina, Pablo Gonzalez de Cossio, Francisco de la Torre, David Pena, Karla Salas… people who’ve decided to take on these cases themselves. And they’ve very enthusiastically taken on these cases pro bono -- they’re not charging for their services. These Mexican lawyers have decided to support freedom of expression in Mexico.

Advice for journalists who are self-censoring due to fear of libel lawsuits 

On the importance of finding pro bono legal support when journalists face lawsuits

There isn’t a journalist who’d be able to endure this kind of legal trouble — one lawsuit after another — if it wasn’t for lawyers, like the Mexicans I just mentioned, who decided to help us with their pro bono services. 

If we hadn’t had the luck of relying on these lawyers to work pro bono, we’d be feeling very differently. Right now I feel I’m in good company. I feel strong. I feel firm in this battle that’s for the freedom of expression. It’s a very important battle for a society like Mexico. Our democracy is a weak one, and we’re not going to have a better one if we don’t have a free and independent press. I’m convinced, as our colleagues and lawyers are, that Mexico won’t become more democratic if we don’t pursue this battle for freedom of expression and our rights to express our ideas and stay informed on matters of public interest.

This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.