San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Critics Call Press Reforms ‘Totalitarian’

MANAGUA – A polemical attempt by Sandinista lawmakers to pass a new press law requiring private media outlets to hire only journalists affiliated with the Sandinista-controlled journalism guild is being blasted by critics as an illegal and crude attempt to limit freedom of expression in Nicaragua.

The proposed measure, presented by Sandinista lawmaker and journalist Martha Marina González, would require all journalists in Nicaragua – national and foreigners alike – to become dues-paying members of the Nicaraguan Journalists’ Association (known as the CPN in Spanish), which reserves the right to membership. The bill states that only CPN members, who must have university degrees in journalism, may work legally as journalists in Nicaragua.

Everyone else will be considered “illegal” and subject to unspecified penalties. Article 6 of the bill states, “To exercise journalism it will be necessary to have credentials from the Nicaraguan Journalists’ Association…It will be considered an infraction to work in this profession without fulfilling the established requirements and will be considered an illegal exercise of journalism, which will be sanctioned by the competent authorities.”

Similar wording in the original press law passed in 2001 (Law 372) prompted a series of constitutional challenges before the Supreme Court, which never ruled on the matter.

As a result, Law 372 has never really been enforced. The reform attempt, instead of seeking to correct the controversial elements of the first law, would make press legislation even

more restrictive.

The reform to Law 372 also seeks to implement new mechanisms of punishment by empowering the CPN’s “Committee on Ethics and Honor” to sanction journalists who stray from its code of ethics.

Articles 24 and 25 of the reform measure would give the ethics committee the authority to determine the severity of sanctions based on the nature of the offense. The committee’s rulings and punishments would not be subject to any appeals process, according to the bill.

Curiously enough, Sandinista lawmaker González, the sponsor of the press reform bill, is also the president of the CPN’s Committee on Ethics and Honor – a conflict of interests that raises its own ethical questions. The ethics committee’s second in command is also a Sandinista lawmaker.

In response to the recent outcry over the attempted reform, the Sandinista Front’s leadership has already attempted to distance itself from the measure. Sandinista leader Edwin Castro said the bill was presented as a personal initiative by González, and was not endorsed by the party. He also said the Sandinistas are against obligatory licensing for journalists – something critics say is illegal anyway.

In 1985, the Inter-American Human Rights Court issued an Advisory Opinion establishing that requirements for obligatory membership in press guilds, mandatory licensing or required university degrees in journalism, are a serious limitation to press freedom and free expression. Such restrictions are in violation of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, the court ruled.

Mandatory licensing is also in violation of Principle 8 of the international press-freedom document The Declaration of Chapultepec, which was signed by President Ortega in 2001. The declaration states that “The membership of journalists in guilds … must be strictly voluntary.”

Déjà Vu All Over Again

The Inter-American Human Rights Court’s 1985 ruling against obligatory licensing was part of a 20-year international battle led by The Tico Times against Costa Rica’s obligatory press licensing laws, which the country finally repealed by court order in 1995 (TT, May 26, 1995).

Many countries in the world have since followed suit by eliminating mandatory licensing and university degree regulations, in accordance with the court’s ruling. Most recently, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), which awarded The Tico Times its Grand Prize for Press Freedom in 1995, hailed Brazil’s decision last June to eliminate the requirement to have a university degree to practice journalism.

Nicaragua, however, appears to be looking in the opposite direction.

“It’s really tragic that after so many countries have realized the damage that obligatory licensing causes to free expression that Nicaragua seems to be going backwards,” said Dery Dyer, publisher of The Tico Times. “This is a classic move by totalitarian governments to go after the press – it’s the first step in population control.”

The Lollipop Guild

Nicaraguan media analyst and journalism professor Alfonso Malespín claims the CPN has never been considered a serious or professional association, rather a political byproduct of the power-sharing pact between President Daniel Ortega and former President Arnoldo Alemán. The analyst estimates that some 80 percent of journalists in Nicaragua don’t belong to the CPN, nor have shown much interest in joining.

The press reform measure, he said, would only make the country’s press laws even more “inapplicable.”

Malespín estimates that only 30 percent of the journalists in Nicaragua have university degrees in journalism. He says requiring businesses to hire only those journalists is a violation of a company’s right to hire whomever they feel is best suited for the job.

Legalized Witch Hunt

The real danger of the reform measure, critics note, is that it would create a legal framework that could be used to legitimize a government’s selective witch hunt of outspoken critics.

“Who the heck is the competent authority to decide who is a journalist? And what are the sanctions and what part of the Penal Code would this fall under?” demands Sofia Montenegro, a journalist and director of the Center for Communication and Investigation (CINCO). “ Does this mean I will become an illegal worker in my own country if I don’t have a license? What are they going to do, deport me? Force my employer to fire me?”

Montenegro, whose CINCO organization was subject to a controversial government probe last year, said the reform measure is part of the Sandinista government’s “totalitarian and authoritarian” project that seeks to intimate critics and encourage self-censorship. She compares the reform attempt to the Sandinistas’ efforts to get all state workers to sign up for party membership cards.

Montenegro predicts the press reform initiative will backfire – part of what she calls the government’s “idiotic, myopic and auto-destructive logic.”

“The press has always been very resilient and combative against authoritarianism,” she said. “There is only so much terror you can try to impose on people before they react and start to hit back.”

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