MANAGUA – The hemisphere’s most important free-press organization has expressed “serious concern and alarm” over the “very explosive” situation here regarding freedom of expression.
Following a top-level mission to Managua last week, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) expressed alarm over the “totalitarian” tendencies of the government, and accused the Sandinista administration of “harassing independent news media and journalists and systematically restricting Nicaraguans’ right to movement, association and expression.”
The IAPA, which represents 1,400 member publications throughout the Americas, stressed that its concerns for free expression in Nicaragua aren’t limited only to the independent media outlets here, but rather to all Nicaraguans.
“The concern is for freedom of expression in general, not just for the press,” said IAPA President Enrique Santos, director of the Colombian daily El Tiempo.
Santos lamented that President Daniel Ortega refused to meet with the IAPA delegation and wouldn’t even answer their request for interview, despite three months of trying.
Santos said that the IAPA delegation did meet with Sandinista Supreme Court Magistrate Rafael Solís, who’s become a de facto spokesman for the Ortega government in recent months. Santos said the press delegation expressed its concerns to Solís, who in turn “tried to minimize the situation and talked about isolated cases.”
Santos said Solís tried to assure the IAPA mission that the situation in Nicaragua “is not worrisome, and that the government does not have a policy of restricting information.” The irony of Solís’ defense of Ortega, who effectively was demonstrating his policy of restricting information by refusing to meet with visiting delegation, was not lost on the IAPA.
“The IAPA attributes Ortega’s snub to the climate of intolerance fostered by his government and demonstrated on a daily basis through its treatment of independent news media, which are denied information, harassed by legal constraints or are discriminated against in the placement of official advertising,” the press association said in its final statement Jan. 27.
In addition to the government’s closed-door policy and “hostile climate toward the independent press,” the IAPA also expressed serious concern over the use of judicial actions to intimidate journalists and dissidents, the administration’s secretive nature and its refusal to conduct press conferences.
The organization also criticized the government’s use of media licensing and regulations to coerce and intimidate news organizations. IAPA dismissed the criticism of Sandinista Ombudsman Omar Cabezas, who last week blasted the free-press mission for being part of an “international media mafia” that represents the “oligarchy and imperialism.” The Sandinistas have repeatedly used the same epithet for others who have criticized the Ortega administration.
Santos responded to Cabezas’ attack by saying that the IAPA, in its 60 years of defending free-expression in the hemisphere, has always been criticized by “dictatorships from the left and the right.”
“We are used to it,” he said, adding that the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez also refused to receive a recent IAPA mission to Caracas, and instead organized marches and protests against their visit, calling them “mafia, imperialists and CIA.”
U.S. journalist Bob Rivard, chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, added “I think the claims and arguments of imperialism are sounding awfully tinny and flat to people.” Rivard, who was based in Nicaragua in the 1980s as a correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, says returning here last week was a troubling experience.
“What disturbs me here, coming back after so many years, is that the administration of president Daniel Ortega seems to be pushing the press, maybe not as bluntly or openly as they were before (during the war in the 1980s), but nevertheless with the same intentions: controlling them and limiting them,” Rivard told The Nica Times in an interview following the conclusion of the IAPA mission here.
The Propaganda Machine
Rivard, who now works as editor of the San Antonio Express-News in Texas, said the IAPA is also very concerned about the role that government-run media outlets play under the current Ortega administration.
He said that while the administration claims that their media outlets are presenting “uncontaminated information,” in reality they’re just government voice boxes for propaganda and bullying campaigns against the independent media and dissidents.
“It’s not the government’s job to handle the reporting of itself. That’s the job of a free press,” Rivard said. “The government should govern, the press should communicate.”
The IAPA’s Santos said that government media efforts such as “El 19,” the Sandinistas’ new weekly newsletter, is “ferociously polarized” and that other independent media outlets need to be careful not to allow themselves to be baited by the government attacks to avoid “throwing more kindling on the fire.”
El 19 has not been published for more than seven weeks, and some are speculating that it may have folded already, after coming out with only 16 issues over a four month period last year. But other government media outlets continue to play the role of Sandinista “propaganda machine” by “libeling critics” and “encouraging reprisals through parapublic sector shock troops against those who openly express their opinions,” the IAPA said.
“The IAPA considers these practices to be in direct contrast to the principles of rule of law, justice and democracy,” the association’s statement reads.
The IAPA mission also expressed serious concern about the government’s use of media licensing to pressure media owners into compliance.
TV commentator Jaime Arellano, known for his blistering morning commentaries against the Ortega administration, was forced off the air last August when the government threatened to not renew Channel 2 TV’s broadcasting license (NT, Aug. 22, 2008).
“Good people and good journalists like him, who are only doing what they should be doing – holding the government accountable and informing the public – are being silenced,” Rivard said. “Those are the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime, not a democracy.”
He added, “Nicaragua, to me, is at a crossroads and it has got to decide what’s it going to be? Is it going to be a democracy with pluralism, and all the give and take that involves? Or is it going to fall back into its totalitarian past?”
The concern, the press-freedom expert says, is that “Nicaragua is on a road back to where it once was. And that will be tragic.”
IAPA Gives Gov’t Long To-Do List
The IAPA made the following recommendations “to ensure the re-establishment of guarantees for freedom of the press in Nicaragua”:
*Comply with the principles of the Declaration of Chapultepec.
*Observe and practice the access to public information law; support public awareness campaigns so that citizens may exercise the search and access rights provided for in that legislation; in addition improve open and transparent procedures with the press, providing information and holding news conferences periodically.
*Manage the news media in the hands of the government with the policies of plurality and diversity inherent to public information and not as instruments of governmental propaganda.
*Distribute official advertising transparently and based on technical criteria; grant radio and television operating licenses without using them to discriminate among media and journalists according to their editorial policies.
*Within the Attorney General’s Office create a special human rights division to investigate violations of such rights, including those that go against the freedoms of expression and the press, crimes against or attacks upon journalists, and provide special oversight of safety and protection for the unfettered practice of journalism.
*Review sentences and court rulings concerning the murders of Carlos Guadamuz and María José Bravo, so that these crimes do not remain unpunished.