Mexico Warns No. 2 TV Network After Anchor Attacks Health Czar

Michael O'Boyle and Fabiola Zerpa

(Bloomberg) --

Mexico’s government warned the country’s No. 2 television station, controlled by billionaire Ricardo Salinas, that it may have violated exceptions to free speech provisions after the network’s star anchor told viewers to ignore the county’s health czar overseeing the response to the coronavirus outbreak.

On Friday evening, TV Azteca’s prime time news anchor Javier Alatorre said that the nightly briefings by Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez Gatell had become “irrelevant” after a governor said the national death tolls were not up to date.

“We tell you as strongly as possible: Don’t pay attention to Hugo Lopez Gatell,” Alatorre said.

Mexico’s interior ministry issued a warning on Saturday, saying TV Azteca could have overstepped free speech exceptions to protect public order after the anchor asked viewers to “disobey” Lopez Gatell.

“The television station, known publicly as Television Azteca, is instructed to comply with the provisions of the General Health Council, in the context of a health emergency such as the pandemic due to the COVID-19 virus,” the ministry said. “In case of non-compliance, this ministry will initiate the administrative sanction established in the law.”

The ministry did not specify potential sanctions.

Earlier on Saturday, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended Lopez Gatell, who has become the face of Mexico’s coronavirus response, and called on Mexicans to heed his advice.

“We wholly trust him,” Lopez Obrador said. “So that is why I think our friend Javier Alatorre is wrong. Last night he said to ignore Dr. Hugo Lopez Gatell. I think it was a thoughtless step.”

Lopez Gatell said at his daily briefing on Saturday that the government’s data and advice was the work of many officials, responding to a query about the attack. He said Mexico was providing an unprecedented exercise in transparency with its daily conferences on the outbreak, and he thanked the president for his support.

Salinas is one of Mexico’s most powerful billionaires. He became a key ally to the president during Lopez Obrador’s campaign and was named as a special business adviser at the start of the administration. Salinas’ Banco Azteca chain was tapped early last year to help distribute Lopez Obrador’s new cash aid programs for the poor.

Salinas has taken the spotlight for recent speeches where he said the economic damage from the government’s shutdown would be more deadly than the virus.

“It seems that we will not die from coronavirus, but we will starve,” Salinas said in a late March speech. A spokesman for Salinas declined to comment on the government’s warning for TV Azteca.

Lopez Obrador drew criticism during March for moving too slowly to address the health crisis, and imposed a national emergency at the end of the month as he ordered non-essential businesses to close. Latin America’s second-biggest economy is seen suffering one of the deepest recessions in the region. Last week, Lopez Gatell warned that inspectors would close down businesses that continued operating without permission, and investigators would probe whether they had endangered public health.

Lopez Obrador said he thought Alatorre was a “good person” who had “made a mistake like everyone can. He made use of his freedom to express himself. There should be no political lynching of someone who does not share our point of view.”

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