MANAGUA – The strained relationship between the Sandinista Front and many independent news media has become increasingly tense and hostile in recent weeks as the political climate heats up in anticipation of the upcoming municipal elections, according to journalists and analysts.
As the country divides along political lines in a high-stakes electoral season, the Sandinista government has started to turn the screws on the opposition media. In contrast to the government’s previous strategy of ignoring opposition news outlets, it now appears to be making a more concerted effort to stifle critical voices, media insiders claim.
In the past several weeks, a popular TV personality who is fervently critical of the Sandinista government was forced off the air after the station reportedly received highlevel pressure from the family of President Daniel Ortega. And the leading opposition daily, La Prensa, was found guilty last week of slandering five Sandinista community organizers in what’s being called an “absurd” criminal case that has cast even darker shadows of doubt on the country’s already politicized judicial system.
On the Caribbean coast, which is ground zero in the political battle over the municipal elections, the situation is even hotter. A local radio station was recently attacked by a mob of government supporters and later had its transmission tower damaged after speaking out against the Sandinistas’ efforts to suspend regional elections. A local newspaper correspondent was then reportedly forced to leave town after receiving death threats.
Nicaraguan media analyst Alfonso Malespín says the “tension” that the Sandinista government has maintained with the media since taking office last year will most likely continue to grow over the coming months as the Nov. 4 elections draw nearer.
The Sandinista government’s media policy has been to channel all information through its official media outlets and deny information to other news agencies, oftentimes excluding them from covering official government acts. The administration has also used its annual budget of $30 million for government publicity to reward only official media and small independent media that adopts a non-critical line – a loyalty the government enforces by awarding only short, two- or three-month advertising contracts.
Malespín says the Ortega government has been successful at managing its media policies from a tactical point of view, and he thinks they will be “reluctant” to employ any increasingly iron-fisted tactics, such as the black-marker censorship of the 1980s.
Instead, Malespín said, the government will most likely opt to “continue its policy of ignoring the media in different forms, by withholding government advertising and information.”
Yet for those who claim to already have been targeted by government repression, the outlook is more pessimistic.
“I don’t have the slightest doubt that we are entering a new phase of heavy-handed policies (toward the press),” television journalist Jaime Arellano told The Nica Times.
Arellano, the popular morning talk show host of “10 en La Nación,” a weekday show on Channel 10, surprised his viewers April 4 with a tearful and unexpected announcement that the morning’s broadcast would be his last show. Arellano told his viewers that he was being forced to go off the air because he refused to tone down his political criticisms of the government.
He ended his final program on Channel 10 with an impassioned call for Nicaraguans to stand up against the Ortega administration and defend the country’s democratic institutions before it’s too late.
Afterwards, Arellano, whose program has since been picked up by Channel 2, told The Nica Times that the pressure for him to leave Channel 10 came from the nation’s highest office. Arellano claims that two of the children of Ortega and first lady Rosario Murillo visited the station to pressure the general manager to get the morning talk show host to “turn down the gas” in his daily criticism of the government.
“I am not sure what the final intimidation tactic that they used was, but (the station management) told me to lower my tone or I’d be off TV. The manager met with me and said there’s lots of pressure from the government, and that (Channel 10) doesn’t want to be an enemy of the administration, so I had to change the strategy of the program,” Arellano said, adding that he refused and was subsequently fired.
Channel 10 is owned by Mexican media mogul Angel Gonzalez, who is also reportedly the majority holder in Multinoticias Channel 4, the Sandinistas’ official news channel. Channel 10’s general manager has said the problem with Arellano, a former Conservative Party politician, was that he was too partisan to do a balanced news show.
The station denies it received any pressure from the president or first lady.
Following Venezuelan Model?
Arellano, however, insists his case is proof positive that the Sandinista government is following the alleged media advice given to it by a Venezuelan consultant: either buy out the opposition media, or pressure them to be quiet.
“We have seen that various media outlets now have ample financial support from the government and have changed their policies, while there are others that are (critical of the administration) and are receiving pressure from the government,” Arellano said.
One independent national TV station, which has recently sold TV spots to the government to broadcast uncensored versions of Ortega’s “El Pueblo Presidente” shows, did not return The Nica Times requests for comments on its financial arrangement.
La Prensa, meanwhile, has not let up on its historically barbed criticism of the Sandinistas, despite losing its slander case – the outcome of which, the paper claims, was decided by the Sandinistas long before the trial even started.
The daily was sued for slander by five members of the Sandinistas’ Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs) over a Dec. 20 headline that read: “CPC With License to Give Beatings.” The subtitle of the article referred to the CPCs as “gangs,” following an incident in which a La Prensa journalist, Jorge Loásiga, was attacked by Ortega’s private security, which the newspaper erroneously identified as CPC in its headline.
Five members of the local CPC in the Managua neighborhood where the incident took place then sued La Prensa for libel and slander, arguing that their “dignity” had been affected by the headline because people in their neighborhood had since referred to them as “gangsters” (see sidebar, page 6).
The guilty verdict has been condemned by independent media as well as business chambers and opposition politicians. Several critics have likened the trial to the kangaroo courts of the Somoza dictatorship.
La Prensa’s rival newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, said,“(we) add our voice to the clamor of those who have condemned this trial, which by all indications was political and against the freedom of expression, and alert about this government’s totalitarian direction, with is more evident every day.”
The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) has also expressed its concern. “The plaintiffs are not mentioned personally, since none of their names is in the headline of the article, which should invalidate the charge…The judge is a Sandinista supporter who does not hide his partiality and bias. In addition, the plaintiffs are transported in a vehicle belonging to the office of the FSLN,” IAPA said in its midyear report for Nicaragua, released March 30.
In addition to being found guilty of dubious charges in court, Jaime Chamorro, president of La Prensa, has also been targeted by a Sandinista smear campaign in the form of attack ads that accuse him – without any evidence – of stealing “$600 million” in the 2000 banking system collapse known as the “Cenis scandal.” In what La Prensa’s lawyers call a clear case of slander and libel, the ad, published in the name of the CPCs and run constantly on Sandinista television, calls Chamorro a “thief” and ends with the message “The thieves must pay.”
Despite the pressure campaign against him and La Prensa, Chamorro says he doesn’t think the Sandinistas will take the next step and start censoring the media like they did in the 1980s.
“It’s different from the ’80s, when we had total censorship,” Chamorro told The Nica Times. “The liberty of press was recovered during (the government of) doña Violeta (Chamorro) and it would be difficult to revert back to censorship. First of all it’s unconstitutional, and secondly the people wouldn’t let it happen now. Nicaraguans see the importance of a free press.” Violeta Chamorro served from 1990 to 1996.
Omission and Intimidation
Though the return to past censorship is considered unlikely, the tools used by the Sandinista government to control the press today are more sophisticated forms of intimidation and omission, according to journalists.
All government communication has been centralized in the hands of first lady Murillo, who only provides requests for information to Sandinista media. She has also created a situation where most government officials are afraid to talk out of line, at risk of being fired. The lack of official information has
affected international correspondents as well as local journalists.
The Association of Foreign Correspondents in Nicaragua has spent the past year soliciting interviews with Ortega, Murillo and different government ministers and officials, without any luck.
“The ministers, the only ones who are authorized to speak on behalf of the various ministries, only give exclusive interviews to the official media outlets, Channel 4 TV and Radio Ya, and no one has answered our requests for interviews,” said Sonia Gonzalez, president of the foreign press association. “Because of this, we are limited to the official Web pages of the government.”
Those Web pages, however, aren’t much more helpful than the taciturn government officials.
A recent comparative study by the Regional Alliance for Freedom of Expression gave Nicaragua the worst marks in the region for access to public information.
The study, which compared four countries in Central America, also raised serious concerns that Nicaraguan public documents have been removed from government Web pages.
The group further lamented that Nicaraguan government Web pages are mostly “virtual tools for political propaganda and not modern channels to get information that is valuable to the responsible citizens.”
The recent IAPA report also expressed concerns about intimidation tactics by the government.
Among the moves mentioned was the recent granting of house arrest to William Hurtado, an ex-official in the Sandinista State Security convicted of murdering anti-Sandinista journalist Carlos Guadamuz in a premeditated public assassination in 2004.
The release of Hurtado, along with the attempted release of Eugenio Hernández, who killed La Prensa journalist María Jose Bravo in 2004, has been decried by journalists as government attempts to intimidate the press.
“They want to silence the media outlets so that people get scared,” Arellano said. “I see the Sandinista Front like a dog – if it gets close and sees you are scared, it will jump on top of you, but if it sees that you are not scared, it won’t jump.”
Opposition lawmakers, too, have expressed concern about the Sandinista government’s handling of the media and are attempting to pass a new law that would protect news agencies from having their broadcast licenses terminated for political reasons, similar to what Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez did last year with RCTV – a decision applauded by Ortega.
The National Assembly’s commission on media issues is currently studying a bill that would automatically extend for 10 years all media broadcasting licenses, to protect media outlets from the arbitrariness of Sandinista government renewal policies, said commission member Jamileth Bonilla.
The bill, which is supported by the opposition lawmakers, appears to have enough votes to pass, but it will be up to the Sandinistas to put it on the legislative agenda.
“This is an important bill to protect the liberty of press and freedom of expression,” said Liberal lawmaker María Eugenia Sequeira.
“We have seen that this government is a dictatorship, but we have to keep fighting.”