Mexico’s Second Richest Man Uses Television to Defy Authorities

Ricardo Salinas Pliego, owner of TV Azteca, has in recent months used his television station to pressure the Mexican government to lift the quarantine imposed by the country’s health authority in its attempt to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic. True to his nature, Mr. Salinas Pliego put again his business interests above public health.

“Every night the Under Secretary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, has led the Covid-19 briefing in Mexico. But his figures and reports have already become irrelevant. We tell you as clearly as possible: don’t pay attention to Hugo López-Gatell.”

This is how on April 17th, 2020, anchorman Javier Alatorre presented the TV station’s headline news program. His words sparked outrage on social media where they were described as irresponsible as they suggested the population should ignore the “Stay at Home” recommendation issued by the authorities, despite the risk of boosting further coronavirus infections.

TV Azteca is the second largest television station in Mexico, and its owner, Ricardo Salinas Pliego ranks second in Forbes’ list of Mexican billionaires with a fortune of US$ 11.7bn, surpassed only by Carlos Slim, the richest man in the country.

Criticism of Mr. Alatorre’s message continued on Twitter all day April 18th, spawning several trending topics, one of which, #JavierAlatorre, exceeded 500 thousand comments and encouraged several petitions on Change.org that demanded sanctions against the station, including the withdrawal of its television broadcast license.

Using his Twitter account, deputy Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, a man of vast political experience, condemned Mr. Alatorre’s television appearance as a call to civil disobedience. He also mentioned that, for such conduct, Mexico’s General Health Law stipulated warnings, fines, temporary or definitive closure of the company, and, in case of lack of compliance, 36 hours of arrest for those responsible.

On April 18th, 2020, Comuna-Oaxaca, an activist organization, published photos and videos on social media showing, in a symbolic act, how TV Azteca’s Oaxaca facilities were shut down for “endangering the health of Mexicans.” A post on their Twitter account read: “Today we symbolically shut down a company that profits from the poorest and is condemning Mexicans to die for the sake of its multiple businesses.”

Salinas Pliego vs López-Gatell

TV Azteca’s attacks against the Under Secretary of Health did not begin with Mr. Alatorre’s recent television performance. He had already used the station previously to discredit the sanitary measures that involved closing non-essential businesses and the stay-at-home rule during the Covid-19 crisis.

Since March 25th 2020, the morning news show Hechos AM (meaning “AM Facts” in Spanish), which is broadcast throughout Mexico, featured Mr. Salinas Pliego stating that most cases of Covid-19 are not fatal and that “life must continue.” Since “only in a few cases” was the virus deadly, it was a mistake to lock yourself in: stopping all economic activity was likely to cause more damage healthwise, he said.

In a meeting with his highest-level partners, the tycoon said that “we must forget […] that this virus equals death, as it’s not true”, topping it off he said that “paralyzing the entire economic activity means hunger […], crime will soon break out […] because the alternative to isolation is pillage and chaos, social violence.”

In a note, Grupo Salinas and “all its companies” promised to continue to provide their services despite measures “imposed” by the presence of the coronavirus. In addition to the television channels adn40 and TV Azteca, Grupo Salinas provides telecommunications, cybersecurity, and cable television services. It runs the financial and retail corporation Elektra, the insurer Seguros, and Banco Azteca. Through its nationwide presence, the group’s services reach most of the country’s poor.

Already in the first week of April, Mr. Salinas Pliego contradicted the Mexican government again, stating on his Twitter account: “General isolation is NOT useful for containing the epidemic.” His companies have remained open, ignoring a government order for companies to shut down, which was issued on March 31st, 2020. His more than 70,000 employees continued to go to work. According to Proceso, the most prominent political weekly political in the country, managers in the group’s companies were asked to prevent leaks about workers’ concerns related to the Covid-19 contagion.

But all of Mr. Salinas Pliego’s criticism turned out to have some hidden motivations. It has coincided with several important developments including the group’s ongoing litigations with government authorities over back taxes to the tune of more than US$ 1.35m that Grupo Elektra owes the Mexican state, according to Reforma, a Mexican newspaper; an ongoing lawsuit for “moral damages” filed by Mr. Salinas Pliego and Banco Azteca against the magazine Proceso in response to an article on the alleged fraud between Pemex (the oil company owned by the Mexican government), Fertinal (a state-controlled fertilizer company) and Banco Azteca; as well as the issuing, on April 23rd, 2020 of a presidential decree that threatens to financially affect the country’s broadcasting industry.

I Think My Friend Alatorre Was Wrong”

On April 18th, 2020, a day after the upheaval caused by Mr. Alatorre’s speech on television, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador sent out an unusual Saturday message in response to TV Azteca’s take on the virus. The president said: “I think my friend Javier Alatorre was wrong […] in saying that we don’t have to listen to Dr. Hugo López-Gatell.”

The president was sympathetic, saying: “I think it was not a well-thought-out attitude, because Javier is a good person, I think he made a mistake, as we all make mistakes. He also has his freedom; everyone is allowed to express and assert themselves. There must not be a political lynching in any way of someone who does not share our point of view.”

The Mexican president added that, in his opinion, Mr. Alatorre “can even say something […] that might even be harmful to humans. […] You have the right to express yourself, to assert yourself, long live freedom! Prohibiting is forbidden.” However, the president stressed, “it’s not right to call on people to ignore Dr. Hugo Lopez-Gatell, he’s an authority.”

That same day, the Ministry of Interior issued a “warning” to the television station asking them to show respect for the health provisions, and reminding them that Article 4 of the Mexican Constitution “establishes that every person has the right to health protection” and that Article 6 “guarantees that the expression of ideas will not be subject to any judicial or administrative inquisition unless it disturbs public order.”

After receiving the warning, TV Azteca tempered its attacks. Mr. Alatorre posted on his Twitter account: “I appreciate President Andrés Manuel @lopezobrador_ for his continuous defense of democracy and freedom. He understands better than anyone the efforts that Mexican families make every day to just get by. We cannot allow fear to overcome Mexico.” Not a word about Mr. López-Gatell and the slogan he repeats every night in his televised briefing: “Stay at Home.”

On April 20th, 2020, Mr. López-Gatell posted on his Facebook wall a photograph where he appeared alongside TV Azteca’s Alatorre. He wrote: “I chatted with Javier Alatorre about the extension of the National Effort on Healthy Distance as the main measure to avoid the spread of #COVID19. See you tonight in Facts.”

On Azteca’s primetime news show, before presenting a recorded interview with Mr. López-Gatell, Mr. Alatorre justified his controversial statements by saying that he was referring to “the figures, the data and the incontingencies (sic), and not the sanitary measures.” In a volte face, he stated that, “at no time did we call on people to disobey the specific instructions of the General Health Council regarding the general ‘imposed’ policy.” Mr. Alatorre added that in all the news shows of TV Azteca “we have always been respectful of the law and particularly of those laws that protect the health and integrity of Mexicans.”

The reality, however, is different. Grupo Salinas blatantly ignored the governmental order on companies to suspend all non-essential activities.

TV Azteca cited in a news report “high-level sources” who have revealed the impact of Covid-19 on the industry and trade. “In the last 45 days, 520,000 jobs have been lost,” Mr. Alatorre said without specifying the source of that data.

TV Azteca: Threats and Armed Commandos

This was not the first time TV Azteca has called on people to ignore the authorities or to take the law into their own hands. In 1999, for six uninterrupted hours the television station was used to air content aimed at forcing the resignation of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the head of government in what was then the Federal District, now Mexico City, after the assassination of the famed comedian Paco Stanley in a taco restaurant.

Mr. Salinas Pliego broadcast a message that stated: “Today was Paco’s turn, tomorrow it can be yours or mine or anyone’s. Impunity crushes us and where is the authority? I ask, we all ask. Where is the authority? What do we pay taxes for? What do we hold elections for? Why do we have three powers? Why is there such a big government when there is no authority?”

In December 2002, the staff of CNI Channel 40, a rival television, reported that TV Azteca had sent an “armed commando” of hooded individuals that confiscated the station’s broadcasting equipment: the reason was a debt worth US$ 1m that CNI owed to Mr. Salinas Pliego.

In a separate development, ten years later, TV Azteca refused to broadcast the presidential debate, airing instead a league match played at the same time by Monarcas Morelia, a football team owned by Grupo Salinas. Mr. Salinas Pliego wrote on his Twitter account: “If you want the debate, watch it on Televisa [the largest television station in Mexico]; otherwise watch football on Azteca. I will show them the ratings the next day.” In 2018, forced by law, TV Azteca broadcast the presidential debates, but it didn’t do it in prime time.

All of that has an impact on Azteca’s credibility. Raúl Sánchez Carrillo, who worked in the Azteca’s news department in the late 1990s, said in an interview with Zócalo, a Mexican media-focused magazine, that by working for TV Azteca, “the most expensive thing you pay for is called a bill against credibility.”

According to Mr. Carrillo, “the campaigns against the government of the federal district, governors, for any type of economic interests, business interests or of any other kind, all that spoils credibility.”

Asked whether these campaigns were initiated by Azteca’s journalists from their own initiative, Mr. Carrillo, waving his finger, said no. Asked whether they were ordered by Mr. Salinas Pliego, he replied bluntly: “That’s right.”


Pictured: Ricardo Salinas Pliego (Photo: Grupo Salinas)


Primavera Téllez Girón García is a journalist and professor at Xochimilco Metropolitan Autonomous University

@Primaveratgg

This is an adaptation for MediaPowerMonitor of an article originally published in the May 2020 edition of Zócalo magazine. Adaptation by Norina Solomon.

Read here the original article in Spanish.