The government of President Daniel Ortega has “escalated hostility” toward independent press in recent months by making threats, accusations and verbal abuse, according to an Oct. 6 report by the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA).
The government has “specifically campaigned to defame and denigrate independent media outlets and journalists,” says the IAPA, which is considering whether to send a special mission here to investigate deteriorating press freedoms in Nicaragua.
From employing the Sandinista-dominated court system to go after journalists and government critics, to spending millions on a family-run advertising campaign that promotes Ortega’s personal image and vilifies critical journalists, to public name-calling against the independent press, the five-page report is a run-down of the ways in which the Ortega administration has threatened and violated press freedoms.
The government and those close to it “systematically file lawsuits to constrain the free practice of journalism,” the report states. Along those lines, IAPA is asking the Nicaraguan judicial system to remain impartial in the high-profile case against La Prensa director Jaime Chamorro, journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro and priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal, who say court cases against them are political.
Prosecutors on Saturday morning raided the office of journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director of the Center for Media Investigations (CINCO) as part of a widereaching investigation of an array of nongovernmental organizations that have been critical of the Ortega government (see separate story, Page N1).
“In nightly speeches, President Daniel Ortega continues to threaten news media, business and civil society leaders and even diplomats accredited in Nicaragua. He has called El Nuevo Diario “El Nuevo Diablo” (The New Devil) and La Prensa journalists ‘murderers,’” the report states.
The Ortega administration has also adopted the policy of providing information only to its own official “media that give wholehearted support to his government,” the report states.
“Government advertising, which is substantial, is used not only to benefit mainly the FSLN government party but also to promote President Ortega’s personal image.”
An agency run by the Ortega family has erected thousands of large billboard signs on streets and highways and has been running ads several times daily since February on its family-run TV Channel 4, Multinoticias, which regularly vilifies Ortega’s opponents, such as Jaime Chamorro and opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre.
A study by the Central American ad tracking company Media Guru found that the government in 2007 spent $3.6 million in ads and is expected to double that expenditure this year. About 80 percent of that is spent on television, mostly on the family-run Canal 4.
Voices that have tried to criticize the progovernment media campaign and Channel 4’s slander campaigns have been met with violence. Earlier this month, a group led by a Sandinista legislator and Managua city councilman broke up a small university student protest outside of Channel 4 by beating down the protesters with fists, kicks and belt lashings as the TV cameras captured the scene.
IAPA says that Patricia Delgado, director of the Association of Municipalities (AMUNIC), was the fourth public official under the Ortega administration to leave her post for making statements to the independent press. She was “forced to resign” after praising the Sandinista Mayor of Managua Dionisio Marenco, who has distanced himself from Ortega.
IAPA, of which The Nica Times and Tico Times are members, urged the Nicaraguan Supreme Court to make a final ruling on an appeal that would guarantee media rights to special tax exonerations and urged the National Assembly to pass a law to guarantee the exonerations.
On a positive note, the report praises the new Penal Code for eliminating direct liability of publishers, editors and publication owners. The new code also says public officials are not libeled when they are criticized with facts in carrying out their official duties or in defense of the public interest as long as news “has been reported in line with journalist ethics.”