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Carmen Aristegui, Mexican investigative journalist
Carmen Aristegui, Mexican investigative journalist

Illustration: Dante Aguilera for GIJN



‘Don’t Be Scared, Not Even with Presidents’: Tips from a Celebrated Mexican Investigator

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Carmen Aristegui did not become a journalist to battle with the country’s most powerful people. She wanted to become a reporter to make a positive change.

In a storied career that has seen her become one of the most respected journalists in Mexico, as well as Latin America, Aristegui has investigated political corruption, the case of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, and child sexual abuse among the clergy. Her work has been broadcast on her radio show and on CNN México, and she also helped found the Mexicoleaks platform.

Reporting in Mexico is fraught with risks, and can draw enemies in high places. She was once fired after questioning a former president about his health. She was fired again after working, with colleagues, on the Casa Blanca investigation — an exposé that implicated a different Mexican president and his family in a conflict of interest scandal that shook the nation’s political establishment.

There were protests after she was sacked, with the social media hashtag #MexicoWantsAristeguiBack trending, while international press freedom organizations rallied behind her. Refusing to be silenced by fear or intimidation, Aristegui turned to her own media outlet Aristegui Noticias, an independent news start-up that has continued her trademark hard-hitting investigative coverage.

But fearless reporting has come at a price, and in the years since the Casa Blanca investigation she has endured repeated surveillance, personal attacks, and attempts to undermine her credibility in a country that Reporters Without Borders warns is “one the world’s most dangerous” for journalists. She was also one of the first reporters to be targeted by the phone spyware Pegasus.

Her commitment to investigating the powerful has earned her a raft of national press prizes, and last year, she was awarded the World Press Freedom Hero Award by the International Press Institute and International Media Support for “decades of fearless reporting on corruption.” Judges praised her for work “distinguished by an unflinching willingness to shine a critical light on some of Mexico’s most powerful institutions, despite the risks such reporting entails.”

We spoke to Aristegui about her tips for interviewing the powerful, the challenges that investigative media outlets face today, and how to avoid burnout.

GIJN: Of all the investigations you’ve worked on, which has been your favorite and why?

Carmen Aristegui: I really liked working on Mexico’s Casa Blanca — the White House Investigation — with my colleagues Daniel Lizárraga, Rafael Cabrera, Irving Huerta, and Sebastián Barragán, among others. It was a great experience and they were fantastic colleagues. The investigation was robust, it had a lot of impact, and without a doubt it’s one of my favorites.

GIJN: What was the investigation about? 

CA: The investigation exposed a powerful network of public officials and contractors doing business through favoritism. The project revealed close ties between Mexico’s former president and a state contractor company.

GIJN: What are the biggest challenges of investigative reporting in Mexico?

CA: I believe the most pressing challenge, though not necessarily the most important one, is a lack of time and resources to be able to do investigative journalism. You need a team of people who can dedicate their time to investigations, and today, media companies, and especially digital media outlets, find that complicated.

GIJN: Can you tell us more about that?

CA: Of course. I have seen, and facts demonstrate this as well, that there are fewer and fewer spaces within digital media outlets, or even sometimes no spaces at all, for investigations. Independent media outlets have to prioritize sustainability, how to keep going. And sometimes that means not only doing investigative work, but also having to create fast-paced content that has a certain impact. That makes it more difficult to do more investigative work, but of course, we should not stop.

Arestegui being interviewed for the documentary “State of Silence,” by Santiago Maza, which explores attacks on the press in Mexico. Image: Screenshot, “State of Silence”

GIJN: What is your best tip or trick for interviewing?

CA: Don’t be scared, not even with presidents, business people, or celebrities. Remember they are human beings, like you. Keep your head up, and try to reduce the burden of celebrity, since that way you will be able to have a conversation that is just two people talking about subjects that matter to them. Of course, it is not always easy, because there are powerful people, but this has worked for me. Perhaps it’s not a great tip, but it is an idea, since if you panic the interview might not work.

GIJN: Who is a journalist you admire, and why?

CA: Well, among journalists that I admire are Julio Scherer, Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa, Vicente Leñero… they are my references. I am lucky I had the enormous fortune of being able to meet them, talk to them, and have had different types of relationships with them. I consider them my teachers.

GIJN: What’s the best advice you have received thus far in your career and what words of advice would you give an aspiring investigative journalist?

CA: Don’t stop reading. Regardless of the fact that information and data can be accessed today in vertiginously fast ways, I always recommend making sure you have space and time for reading different genres: novels, short stories, and other types of writing, in addition to journalistic or investigative books. It might seem a bit absurd recommending this to reporters, but many do not read or have recently stopped reading. I think reading is a fundamental element for personal growth and a tool journalists must use to gain a better understanding of the world. It opens spaces, brings us ideas, and feeds our imagination. So it seems like a very basic thing, but I would say: read.

GIJN: What is the greatest mistake you’ve made and what lessons did you learn?

CA: Surely many…I don’t know if the correct word would be mistake, but I have one example: when you do something and later you realize that it was not the best idea to continue doing it, for example, spending too much time and effort towards certain coverage and then realizing that the results were predictable. So, doing things that take away your strength, and the vigor and power from your journalistic work.

GIJN: How do you avoid burnout in your line of work?

CA: There is something about self-containment, about enjoying and truly being in the moment you are living, I know it is a bit cliché, but try not to get ahead of the next activity.

GIJN: Please tell us more?

CA: I know that I always have many activities scheduled. But… I always try to stop and focus on the moment. Live the moment and then continue. Otherwise, you are permanently stressed out. What I try to do is focus on what I am doing, enjoy it, and then go to the next thing.

Andrea ArzabaAndrea Arzaba is GIJN’s Spanish editor and director of the Digital Threats project. She holds a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and a BA from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. Her work has appeared in Palabra, Proceso Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, Animal Politico, and 100 Reporters, among other media outlets.

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