Video Scandal Fells a Promising Mexico City Daily

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

When El Independiente was launched a year ago in Mexico City, it quickly took its place among the ranks of aggressive, good-looking dailies that have cropped up in the capital city in recent years. As veteran Mexico City-based journalist Tom Buckley noted in his recent online seminar on Mexican news coverage, El Independiente “gained a reputation as fearless, and produced several solid pieces of investigative journalism, including one report that accused the president’s wife, Marta Sahagun de Fox, of influence trafficking.”

But El Independiente is now defunct — an ironic victim of exactly the kind of political scandal it delighted in uncovering.

El Independiente was one of many properties — ranging from a construction firm to two professional soccer teams — owned by Carlos Ahumada, a native Argentinean and Mexican citizen who is at the center of the so-called “video scandal.” In tapes leaked to media outlets, Ahumada is shown giving stacks of cash to Mexico City officials. The businessman fled to Cuba, where he was arrested and deported to Mexico in April, but only after managing to touch off a diplomatic blowup between the traditionally friendly nations.

The scandal quickly scuttled the newspaper journalistically. Its top editors and most of its staff resigned, and the paper lost its reputation for breaking important news as quickly as it had been made. The paper itself was seized by federal tax authorities.

Last month, the Mexican government pulled the plug on the ailing paper. In an announcement, the Treasury Department said the “business was not viable, because its liabilities exceed 240 million pesos (about $21 million) and it has accumulated losses of more than 156 million pesos (about $14 million).” The government said it was looking to safeguard the interests of the workers — but added darkly that it would have to act “within the limitations of the resources (including a) lack of working capital that the business now suffers.”

The June 13 closure took El Independiente’s journalists by surprise because the government administrator running the paper had told them just a week before that it would be a month to six weeks before any course of action was decided. An El Universal story by Alberto Morales quoted photographer Paulo Vidales as saying he stopped by the office that Sunday morning to pick up a camera for his assignment covering a big soccer championship, and was prevented by Tax Police officers who told him he couldn’t take the camera, but wouldn’t tell him why. Another El Universal story by Morales quoted Mexico City’s top labor rights prosecutor as saying the paper’s closing was “illegal and arbitrary.”

In an e-mail to E&P, journalist Buckley, whose seminar is run through the eco-tourism Web site planeta.com, said the shutdown of El Independiente attracted little press attention, even though the video scandal remains hot news. The end of the paper came just a week after its first birthday.


Pan-Am Highway

BRAZIL

Los Angeles-based Capital Group became the first foreign company to buy a stake in a Brazilian publishing company since the national media law was amended two years ago to allow foreign investors to own up to 30% of print or broadcast media companies. The New York Times reported July 8 in an article by Todd Benson that one of Capital Group’s investment units, Capital International, had reached an agreement to buy 13.8% of Grupo Abril, the publisher of Veja, the 1.1 million-circulation newsweekly and other magazines, travel guides, comic books and print products.
Capital International paid $50 million for the stake in the company controlled by the Civita family.

COLOMBIA

Congress has sent to the Constitutional Court a proposal to make the job of journalist a recognized profession under national labor law. President ?lvaro Uribe had vetoed a previous proposal, arguing it impinged on freedom of expression — especially its requirement that journalists have a university degree. The new proposal eliminates the degree requirement, but Uribe continues to oppose it.

CUBA

Bernardo Ar?valo Padr?n, the Cuban independent journalist who was imprisoned for six years for calling President Fidel Castro a “liar,” has been granted political asylum in the United States, the Miami-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA) reported. Padr?n, founder of the independent news agency L?nea Sur Press, will leave Cuba Aug. 25.

Two of the 29 journalists imprisoned in the March 2003 government crackdown on the independent reporters were released in June for medical reasons, the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported. V?zquez Portal, a writer with the independent agency Grupo de Trabajo Decoro in Havana, was released June 22. He had been serving an 18-year prison sentence. Carmelo D?az Fern?ndez of the agency Agencia de Prensa Sindical Independiente de Cuba (APSIC), was released June 18. He had been serving a 16-year prison sentence.

HAITI

Press freedom “has dramatically improved in Haiti since the fall of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide” earlier this year, a fact-finding mission from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported July 8. Journalists in the capital city of Port-Au-Prince have “much more freedom” than they did during Aristide’s rule, RSF said, though press outlets in the interior continue to censor themselves because of fear from rebel troops. RSF warned that both rebel forces and supporters of the ex-president remain a threat to journalists. “If the government fails to disarm them before elections planned for next year, the media might become the target of new violence,” the group said.

MEXICO

Free-press groups worldwide protested the latest brazen murder of a journalist in the Mexico. Francisco Ortiz Franco, a managing editor of the weekly newspaper Zeta, was shot dead in front of his two sons by masked gunmen who fired four times into his neck and head in broad daylight in downtown Tijuana. “Francisco was gunned down simply because he continued to expose the corruption, scandal and horrifying reality of Mexico’s criminal underworld. He is the latest victim of the culture of indifference and ignorance within the country to the dangers facing journalists who dare to challenge the criminal and undemocratic forces in society,” said Aidan White, general secretary of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. CPJ noted in a letter to the governor of the state of Baja California that Zeta editors have been targeted before. Co-founder H?ctor F?lix Miranda was shot dead in 1988 by two men working security for the prominent businessman Jorge Hank Rhon. In 1997, gunmen working for the notorious Arellano F?lix Tijuana drug cartel wounded the weekly’s publisher, J. Jes?s Blancornelas in an attack that killed his bodyguard, Luis Valero Elizalde.

The daily newspaper Tribuna in the Veracruz state is “under attack” from state authorities because of its reporting on corruption and organized crime infiltration of state government, the El Salvador-based group Probidad reported June 29. The group quoted owner Mart?n Serrano Herrera as saying the paper has been harassed numerous times in the past four years. In May, Serrano said, he was physically assaulted by three individuals he identified as members of the Veracruz state security forces, but no “proper investigation” of the incident has been made.

PARAGUAY

The Paraguayan Journalists Union (SPP) celebrated its 25th anniversary June 22 with a ceremony in front of the Pantheon of Heroes in Asuncion.

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