«Ethics are a tree that bears useless fruit.» It’s a phrase used in Mexican director Julian Fanjul’s latest documentary Radio Silence to sum up the popular philosophy of corrupt opportunism and entrenched amorality that is institutionalised in her home country at every level of society. It’s a disease of thought so pervasive in that those who give their lives in opposition stand out all the more for their integrity and courage. Carmen Aristegui is one such figure and the focus of the film. The Mexican journalist and radio host is a leading media voice in the fight against a prevailing climate of fear that has been imposed by the powerful to silence any resistance to foul play. Even mortified citizens see little hope for any good coming from speaking out about injustices, in a nation where murders are commonly committed with impunity, and where law enforcement is often complicit.
Aristegui was illegally fired from her hugely popular radio show at largely government-funded network group MVS in 2015, after reporting on the «white house scandal» involving the acquisition of a multi-million dollar luxury home by President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife in exchange for a lucrative bullet train contract. It was decried as a case of journalistic censorship by her supporters, but no other network dared hire her. We follow her as she prepares to launch her own news website and online morning newscast, in an era where the internet has made independent journalism logistically easier, but no less risky for those revealing inconvenient truths.
The «white house scandal» is not the only revelation to make Aristegui a thorn in the side of Peña Nieto. He is a representative of the PRI party, which held uninterrupted power for 71 years, from last century up until 2000 in a «pax mafiosa» (a state of relative non-violence, whereby governmental authorities agree not to interfere with criminal activity) from president to president, until the opposition gained power and declared war on the drug cartels, sparking a horrific spate of violence that made citizens hostages in their own country. Dubbed the «TV president» due to the help of media bias in his election, Peña Nieto gained office in 2012, with the PRI’s return to power. Intent to show how an «average politician became president,» Aristegui used a special 2016 report to show how Peña Nieto appeared to commit plagiarism on at least a third of his law thesis. It soon trended as the third most-read story worldwide and was picked up by outlets such as The New York Times. A culture of dishonesty, unaccountability, and impunity at the highest levels was again in the spotlight. The sheer ubiquity of institutionalised corruption is also in Aristegui’s sights, with one story under investigation illuminating the diversion of public funds through university institutions working «cartel style» with the financial sector, in a fake invoice racket.
«The cartels don’t give a damn about freedom of speech»
Octavio Paz is quoted in voice-over. He said that in all totalitarian regimes, persecution starts against isolated individuals, until, little by little, everyone is targeted. In Mexico, where many thousands of citizens have disappeared since the start of the drug war, the reach of corrupt power’s hands seems particularly advanced and inescapable. And journalists are under particular, relentless threat. Even if they are not killed outright, and many are — the 2017 murder of Sinaloa reporter Javier Valdez, who reported on drug trafficking and organised crime, comes as tragic but not unexpected news for Aristegui — the stress of being under constant surveillance and intimidation takes a toll. One of Aristegui’s team says he is taking antidepressants to try to cope with the strain.
Subjugated to the job
In a film that is focused on the adverse conditions that Mexican reporters operate rather than the biography of Aristegui herself, there is scant detail on her personal life or how she came to journalism, but that seems apt: the sheer level of risk entails that all other aspects of life are subjugated to the job. The affection is palpable that she feels for her son Emilio, but she has sent him to study in the United States out of safety concerns — and even over there, they discover his communications are being monitored by the Mexican government’s Pegasus surveillance system. «The cartels don’t give a damn about freedom of speech,» reads one message to her as hate mail and death threats escalate. Workplace security cameras show unknown men breaking in to steal a laptop, in chilling footage she watches back with her employees, more than one of whom resigned as a result. Even Fanjul, the film’s director, discovers that the locks of her apartment have been tampered with and that she is being followed. With the increased scrutiny and intimidation, Aristegui only seems to grow more determined not to give in to silence. What keeps her going, where others can no longer? «Optimism is almost a moral obligation — the alternative is to give up,» she says.