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Ortega’s Media War Expanded to Civil Society in Nicaragua

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – When Daniel Ortega won the 2006 presidential elections, it didn’t take a barometer to predict that the climate for journalism was about to change dramatically. After all, his government had censored and closed opposition media outlets in the 1980s and he maintained tense relations with the press for 16 years after being voted out of office in 1990.

Upon returning to the presidency, Ortega wasted no time establishing his new journalistic caste system. During his inauguration on Jan. 10, 2007, the Sandinista-owned media outlets were given privileged “luxury box” seats directly in front of center stage, while all other journalists were herded onto a crowded metal platform with an obstructed view and under the pounding Managua sun.

In hindsight, that day would mark a high point in relations between the government and the media. It’s been downhill from there.

One of Ortega’s first acts as president was to create the Council of Communication and Citizenry, which jealously controls the flow of all government information. Ortega put his wife, Rosario Murillo, in charge of the office. She has used the post to implement a new government media policy of spoon-feeding stories to state media and cutting everyone else out of the loop.

“We will use our media outlets so that our information gets out uncontaminated, directly, as we did during the campaign,” said Murillo, essentially acknowledging that even while in government the Sandinistas would remain in habitual campaign mode.

Within months, Ortega was back to calling journalists “enemies” and “devils,” and the independent media was complaining that the Sandinista government was regressing to wartime press measures.

“Journalists Humiliated” screamed the headline of the once Sandinista-friendly El Nuevo Diario, after a press event to which only the official media was admitted, while other journalists had to huddle outdoors in the rain and listen to the proceedings on Sandinista radio.

And that was just Ortega’s first year in office.

After starving journalists of information and government advertising in 2007, the Sandinista government launched a carrot-and-stick policy in 2008.

The carrot: using money and broadcast-licenses to “persuade” journalists to adopt a less critical editorial line. In a crumbling economy where many independent media outlets were holding on for dear life, the Sandinista carrot worked.

Several once-prominent TV stations fell under the Sandinista spell and changed their programming lineup, replacing interesting news and analysis programs with mindless talk show drivel, dance contests, cooking shows and soap operas.

In the case of Channel 8 TV, which until recently seemed to enjoy a growing audience of viewers searching the dial for balance, the Sandinistas decided to purchase the station outright. In 2009 they made it a new holding in their growing media empire. The station has since watered down its content and filled the midday slot with programming from Venezuela’s TeleSur.

But when the carrot fails, the Sandinistas reach for the stick. Journalists who refused to capitulate have become targets of government smear campaigns and crackdowns.

Jaime Arellano, a particularly outspoken TV commentator, received numerous threats and was eventually forced off two separate TV stations in less than two years, thanks to Sandinista arm-twisting over broadcast licensing.

Numerous other journalists have received threats or been attacked in the street while covering stories. Media offices and vehicles have been vandalized. Radio stations have been forced off the air and in some cases burned. The daily La Prensa was sued for slander by a Sandinista group and – not surprisingly – found guilty by a Sandinista judge.

Then there’s the case of Carlos Fernando Chamorro, an internationally renowned journalist and Ortega critic who has become the government’s journalistic enemy No.1. In addition to his influential social and political commentaries, Chamorro’s investigative reporting has blown the cover off numerous acts of government corruption and ineptitude.

As reward for his hard work, Chamorro has become a leading target of the Sandinistas. First, they accused him of being a drug trafficker. When that didn’t stick, they accused him of money laundering and “triangulation” – an invented crime not listed in the Penal Code, but which sounded pretty sinister when reported by the Sandinista media.

Chamorro’s offices were eventually raided by the government in October 2008 and his computers were confiscated on trumped-up charges that were never proven.

Chamorro was never formally accused of any wrongdoing.

Looking back on the ordeal, Chamorro said it put him in the uncomfortable position of becoming the news, rather than reporting on it. He said it’s hard to avoid “crossing the line into political activism” when attacked by the government and forced to defend oneself. “I found myself playing a role other than (that of a) journalist,” he said.

The official media, too, has been accused of playing a role other than a journalistic one.

Independent radio journalist Mario Salinas criticizes the official media for being “activists, not journalists.”

Salinas, along with several other elected officials in the Nicaraguan Journalism Association, recently resigned from the organization’s board of directors in protest over the behavior of association president Leonel Laguna, a devout Sandinista. Salinas said Laguna was making decisions without consulting other directorate members, as required by the journalist association’s bylaws. He accused Laguna of “copying the pattern” of Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian governing style.

Media analyst Guillermo Rothschuh, director of the Media Observatory project and founder of the University of Central America’s Journalism program, said the official media is playing a “hybrid” role including journalism and activism, but provides “more propaganda than information.”

Rothschuch said the official media has become a tool used by Ortega to “project his image and confront adversaries,” as well as mobilize party bases. The Sandinista media is not necessarily meant for mass consumption, but rather aimed at supporters in an attempt to maintain Ortega’s base of political clients, he said.

The Sandinistas have also attempted to strengthen their hold on loyal journalists by forming the Forum of Sandinista Journalists, which meets irregularly to pledge allegiance to Ortega’s government and buzz about the “right-wing media dictatorship” that’s allegedly trying to “destabilize the revolution.”

“While the journalists and media outlets committed to the revolution tell the truth, the media on the right resorts to lies and slander, fulfilling the instructions of the SIP (The Inter-American Press Association),” said Sandinista radio journalist Denis Schwartz at a recent forum meeting.

Though the forums haven’t resonated much with anyone else, they have contributed to the increasing polarization of the profession, reverting it to a wartime mentality where journalists have an “overly ideological perception of reality,” according to Rothschuch.

Chamorro says the backwards slide is cause for worry.

“We come from a time of strong polarization during the revolution in the 1980s. Journalism became propaganda and counter- propaganda,” Chamorro said. “In the ‘90s we began to depolarize and there was a reencounter among journalists. We discovered that we had a lot in common as a profession and could work together despite political differences.”

Chamorro views today’s polarization among journalists as mostly “artificial” – something that was manufactured by the presidential couple “in a top down manner, but not something that developed spontaneously.”

Indeed, many of the journalists who rail against one another in the media behave with more decorum off camera. The risk, however, is that the longer the artificial polarization continues and deepens, the better chance it has of becoming real.

The fecklessness of Nicaragua’s Political opposition has also pushed the media into a more aggressive role. But it’s a role some media outlets are comfortable playing.

“I think that the example of other societies that have been through this situation of a government installing dictatorship have given us the guideline to follow. I think that if there is no political opposition then the media should – even more than they would normally – provide the voice for those who don’t have a voice,” said Eduardo Enriquez, newsroom director for the daily La Prensa. “I’m not afraid to fill that space, so long the goal of the journalist or newspaper is trying to recover a lost freedom and not end up in government themselves.”

Still, Enriquez added, even in strange times the media should try to find some semblance of balance. Overall, he said, news coverage “is suffering and it’s difficult to find balance, mostly due to the lack of government information.”

Indeed, of all the problems facing journalists in Nicaragua right now, the lack of access to information – the centerpiece of the Sandinistas’ media policy – is still the root problem from which all others flow.

The Tico Times tried to contact First Lady Murillo to get her opinion on the effectiveness of the government’s silent treatment. But she didn’t respond by press time.

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