MANAGUA – One of Nicaragua’s most familiar and trusted voices signed off the TV airwaves this week after the station that broadcast his award-winning news program was allegedly bought by people linked closely to President Daniel Ortega.
Journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, son of martyred newspaper publisher Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, told the television cameras Jan. 24 that this was his last edition of his weekly news program Esta Semana. Chamorro’s daily news program, Esta Noche, will also cease to air, he said.
The announcement came after weeks of speculation following rumors that Channel 8 TV, Telenica, had been purchased by Ortega’s Sandinista Front for $10 million in Venezuelan aid. Sources at Telenica told The Nica Times the Sandinistas actually bought the channel for much less.
Chamorro, a leading critic of Ortega and his government, said he refuses to be the president’s “accomplice” or to legitimize his “sham.”
“Today I ratify my position in front ofNicaraguasociety that I don’t want to be a partner or collaborator with Mr. Ortega, either directly or indirectly, in any of his economic or political businesses that seek to help him clean his authoritarian image,” Chamorro told the cameras in his final editorial commentary.
“I have absolutely nothing personal against Ortega or his family. What I question, as a critical journalist and a citizen, is his regime based on the abuse of power, violations of the law, the enrichment of his family at the costs of the people, the permanent blackmail and the threats of violence,” Chamorro said.
Chamorro said that some of his viewers had urged him to stay on the air after Sandinista media envoy Alberto Mora allegedly old him his existing contract would be honored under the new ownership. But Chamorro said his decision is one of principle, and that he refuses to be part of Ortega’s game, especially since the president has already proven his resentment toward the free-press.
“No one is more interested in me staying on at this channel than Ortega himself,” Chamorro said. “The continuance of the programs Esta Semana and Esta Noche would validate his history of abuses against the freedom of expression during his presidency.
My continuance at this channel would create the image of tolerance that the regime has never had nor will ever have toward independent media in this country.”
As a result, Chamorro said, to honor the memory of his father, who was gunned down in 1978 for criticizing the dictatorship of of Anastasio Somoza, he is pulling his program from Channel 8 and hoping some other channel will pick it up. So far, there are no offers.
Unclear Business Deal
Rumors that the presidential couple was negotiating to buy Channel 8 TV started at the end of 2009, but were never confirmed (NT, Dec. 24, 2009).
The TV station’s former owner, Carlos Briceño, eventually acknowledged the sale of the station in January, but refused to reveal any details about the transaction, including the identity of the buyers.
But as rumors continued to swirl that the Channel 8 buyout was Ortega’s latest business acquisition – and no other buyer came forward to clarify the situation – it became increasingly clear that the presidential family, Nicaragua’s new business elite, was behind the buyout. The presidential couple’s other business dealings in areas of energy, tourism and agriculture have been conducted with similar secrecy in recent years – a trait which, ironically, has become the telltale sign of their involvement.
For weeks before and after the purchase of Channel 8 was finalized, Chamorro demanded transparency from the mysterious new owners, challenging them on camera to come forward and identify themselves. He also called on Briceño to reveal who the new owners were in the name of transparency and free press.
The rumors of Ortega’s involvement were given more substance earlier this month, when photographers from the daily El Nuevo Diario snapped shots of employees and journalists from Channel 8 entering Ortega’s private compound and presidential office for an evening meeting with the new boss.
The presidential family’s hand in Channel 8 was further tipped when Alberto Mora, the government’s fiercely loyal media spokesman from Channel 4, Multinoticias, allegedly told Chamorro that the new owners would respect his contract.
Chamorro, however, declined.
Award-Winning Journalism Esta Semana, an independently produced award- winning news program that started airing in 1994 on Channel 2 TV, switched in 2005 to Channel 8, where thousands of Nicaraguans tuned in to watch each week.
In an age of infotainment, Esta Semana was a bit of an anachronism. It was all content and no flash, as exemplified by the plain black backdrop that made it seem like the program was filmed inside a dungeon. Yet it was a program that Nicaraguans consistently turned to for its honesty, credibility and resonance, making it a leader in the TV ratings.
Chamorro’s calm yet aggressive interviewing style also made the show a muchwatch program for news addicts. Esta Semana was Larry King, National Public Radio and MacNeil/Lehrer all wrapped into one – a hard-hitting, un-glitzy talk show that got the biggest names in Nicaragua to sit down across the table.
The program helped set the pace for other news outlets and shaped public debate.
Chamorro and his team of talented journalists at Esta Semana also set the standard for TV investigative journalism, exposing corruption and fraud in government and the private sector. Esta Semana’s investigative “step by step” report showing how the Sandinistas allegedly stole the 2008 municipal elections has been hailed by media critics as one of the most important media investigations produced in Nicaragua that year.
“As the most influential journalist in Nicaragua, Chamorro’s programs are vital for the debate of issues of public interest. Therefore, not having that space for discussing issues that affect the daily lives of many Nicaraguans will have a large impact on freedom of expression in the country… Nicaraguan democracy will suffer a blow,” Carlos Lauria, senior Americas program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told The Nica Times in an email.
Reporters and media analysts are reacting strongly to Chamorro’s decision, which they claim will have an impact not only on Nicaraguan journalism but also the state of the country’s democracy.
For media analyst Guillermo Rothschuh, head of the media watchdog group Observatorio de Medios and a regular mixture on Esta Noche, Chamorro was a leading critical voice in the media and a leading influence on investigative journalism in Nicaragua.
He said Chamorro is also one of the country’s most respected figures at a time when “the biggest crisis in Nicaragua right now is the crisis of credibility.”
By refusing to play by Ortega’s rules, Rothschuh said, Chamorro is setting a “precedent” that he hopes will lead to greater reflection, debate and change in Nicaraguan society.
Others, however, think Chamorro should have stuck it out a bit longer to test the waters under the new Sandinista ownership. Former journalism professor Alfonso Malespín notes that Chamorro has a long past with Ortega, making it difficult to know his true motives for leaving Channel 8.
“It’s difficult to separate the personal motives from the ideological, political and journalistic considerations,” Malespín said. “It’s all mixed up.”
Chamorro was editor of the Sandinistas´ official newspaper, La Barricada, until 1994, when party hardliners – including Ortega – decided he was too much of a wildcard to manage the post any longer.
Once Ortega returned to power in 2007, his Sandinista government and its media allies targeted Chamorro, accusing him of drug trafficking and “triangulating money.”
The government launched a rigorous and highly questionable raid on Chamorro´s office in October 2008, confiscating computers, files and other equipment.
The government´s “investigation” never turned up any proof of wrongdoing.
Carrying the Torch
Now that Nicaraguan journalism has lost one of its most powerful voices, the burden of carrying on the tradition of critical journalism falls mostly on a reduced number of print journalists from the two leading dailies, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario.
Through use of intimidation, advertising and licensing contracts, the Sandinista government has managed to tame, coerce or buy several of the leading TV stations.
Networks once known for taking a hard-line critical approach against the Ortega government have noticeably softened their editorial lines in recent years, and now fill more program slots with TV giveaways, soap operas, and other non-threatening daytime noise.
Eduardo Enriquez, newsroom editor of La Prensa, said the loss of Chamorro will put “greater responsibility” on the print media to continue in-depth reporting to expose corruption.
The trick, he said, will be to avoid polarizing society even more by resorting to “trench-warfare journalism.”
However, he admits, “It’s hard to strike a news balance when you have a government that doesn’t share information, and in fact hides it.”
It was those stories – the ones that had lots of shades of grey – that Chamorro was best at explaining.
And the loss of his program will probably make Nicaragua’s news coverage seem a lot more black and white from now on.