A woman at a Mexico City protest holds a sign depicting Carmen Aristegui,… (Alexandre Meneghini / Associated…)
Reporting from Mexico City — Carmen Aristegui, one of Mexico's best-known news hosts, likes to stir the pot. But did she go too far by saying the president should answer unsubstantiated rumors of a drinking problem?
Aristegui, a veteran anchor on radio and television, was fired after telling her audience last week that President Felipe Calderon should respond formally to leftist lawmakers who hoisted a banner in Congress calling him a "drunk."
Those lawmakers offered no proof, and Calderon's public conduct has never suggested inebriation. But Aristegui said the allegations, fanned regularly by the president's detractors though never with evidence, deserved an official answer.
"Does the president of the republic have problems with alcoholism or not?" Aristegui asked during her Friday show, broadcast on radio and cable television.
On Monday, Aristegui's employer, MVS Communications, announced that she had been dismissed for violating an ethics code that bars "presenting or broadcasting rumors as news." The company did not specify the alleged infraction, but said Aristegui had refused to make a public apology.
The firing ignited further controversy, prompting debate over press freedom and journalistic responsibility and generating more coverage about the rumors.
Aristegui, whose popular weekday show carried a liberal tilt and often took aim at the president's conservative policies, says the government pressured MVS to dump her, a charge the Calderon administration denies.
"The federal government is and has been scrupulously respectful of freedom of expression and values the wide variety of voices and opinions in the debate over public affairs," Calderon's office said in a statement Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, a few dozen Aristegui backers shouted anti-Calderon chants outside a packed news conference where she was holding firm, saying that no questions related to the president's health should be off limits.
"I do not apologize because there is nothing to apologize for," Aristegui told reporters. She said she did not mean to offend Calderon and his family, but concluded, "The question stands."
The administration had no comment.
Advocates for press freedom labeled Aristegui's firing a setback for Mexico's evolving democracy and its news media, which operate free of overt censorship but often depend on government advertising and licenses. Some noted that this was hardly the first time that Mexican news media had aired the rumors.
Aristegui told the reporters that limited competition and a haphazard system of granting licenses left Mexico with a few major broadcasters that are vulnerable to "political decisions" and official pressure.
Aristegui's on-air remarks about Calderon came as part of a report on an unruly demonstration a day earlier on the floor of the Mexican Congress. Lawmakers with the fringe Labor Party had unfurled a banner bearing Calderon's likeness that said: "Would you let a drunk drive your car? No, right? So why do you let him run the country?"
The protest, led by a legislator with a history of insulting behavior, spurred a shoving match. Angry members of Calderon's party accused the protesters of slandering the president.
The next day, Aristegui devoted about 10 minutes of her show to the incident. She ended by musing aloud for several minutes on Calderon and the alcoholism question, noting that similar assertions previously had arisen on social network websites.
None of those allegations, she pointed out, was ever proved. Aristegui urged the president's office to give the matter "serious attention" and end the speculation.
On Monday, Aristegui was off the air at MVS. She continues to host a news talk program on Spanish-language CNN.
Aristegui left as host at the W Radio network in 2008, citing editorial "incompatibility" with management. She said at the time that her show had irritated powerful interests, including the Calderon government and Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Mexico's Roman Catholic primate.
Detractors say the two firings in three years are a sign that Aristegui is difficult to work with. Others dismiss her as a mouthpiece for firebrand Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist former mayor of Mexico City who narrowly lost to Calderon in 2006 amid fraud charges.
"Carmen Aristegui is no martyr," a commentator said on Twitter. "She was irresponsible in her comments. She is a biased journalist. No crying now."
Aristegui's admirers, however, see injustice in her firing. "As long as she isn't returned to the radio," one said via Twitter, "freedom of expression is dead in this country.