Freedom of the press came under attack in recent months with accusations, threats and insults by senior members of the central government, often made through official channels, to journalists and independent media. In addition, the administration has been using advertising and legal action as means of coercion.
On April 22 the judge convicted Jaime Chamorro Cardenal, editor of the La Prensa, and Eduardo Enríquez, the newspaper’s managing editor, on a charge of libeling five female members of the Citizen Power Councils (CPC) linked to the governing party and headed by First Lady Rosario Murillo. Managua Eighth Circuit Criminal Court Judge Celso Urbina ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who alleged to have been offended by a report published on December 19, 2007 titled “CPC With License to Beat Up.” The item reported on attacks suffered by La Prensa reporter Jorge Losáiga, but did not mention who were the attackers, who later sued the paper, claiming that they had been offended, exposed to ridicule and described as hooligans.
The sentence included a fine of 27,000 córdobas ($1,407) and an order to publish the court’s ruling immediately and without comment.
La Prensa cartoonist Manuel Guillén received messages on his cell phone several times threatening him and his family with death, and the same thing has happened to television and radio commentator Jaime Arellano.
Another one to receive a death threat was the correspondent of El Nuevo Diario, in this case from the mayor of the city of Chinandega, Roger Olivas. The mayor later apologized.
Supreme Electoral Council President Roberto Rivas issued threats against Hugo Holmann, general manager of La Prensa, and Eduardo Enríquez, news editor. Rivas made the threats over the telephone when reporter Eduardo Cruz called him concerning a report about a plane that he and his family use. “Tell Mr. Holmann and the idiot Enríquez … that if something were to happen to my family they are the only ones responsible.” Rivas then hung up the phone.
In his 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” for having discovered the house where the government is holding a Mexican girl in exile in Nicaragua who survived an attack by the Colombian army on a FARC encampment inside Ecuador. Ortega said that this information was published so that the president of Colombia would send agents to kill the young woman.
On July 25 President Ortega accused La Prensa of having “committed treason against the country” by reporting that a FARC delegation had arrived from Colombia on July 19 for the 29th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. In addition, he ordered the Nicaraguan attorney general to look into taking legal action against the newspaper. Ortega alleged that the news item would be detrimental in a dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia over territorial waters before the court in The Hague. La Prensa defended its action, saying that the two things are totally different. The accusation did not prosper, as under the Penal Code the offense of treason can only occur in a state of international war.
In April, the most critical television and radio commentator, Jaime Arellano, had his program “El 10 en la nación” (10 in the Nation), aired by TV 10 television, cancelled. The channel said the cancellation was due to discrepancies with its directors resulting from pressure from the Nicaraguan presidency “to lower the tone” of his comments. Arellano moved to Channel 2 TV, but it too cancelled his morning program under pressure from the government, because, he said, its broadcast license is due to expire in January 2009 and it could have problems or the government could put the license out on the market.
The cancellation of the program sparked reaction by opposition congressmen in the National Assembly. A bill to extend by 10 years the radio and television licenses that had lain dormant for more than a year was revived and passed, extending the licenses until passage of a new Telecommunications Law can be debated in late 2009 or in 2010 to guarantee, according to the congressmen, the licenses under the discretionary control of the government of the day. At the same National Assembly session an attempt was made to introduce a bill to regulate tax relief for newsprint, machinery and equipment for news media which were partially suspended and which mostly affect print media. Although there was no debate, the matter was sent to the Economy Committee headed by liberal Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, who promised to put the bill to full house for discussion before December.
There have been thefts of antenna cables and damage to transmitters in a number of radio stations critical of the government, such as Radio Corporación, Radio El Pensamiento and Radio 15 de Septiembre. Radio Corporación, the only station that still carried Jaime Arellano’s program, went off the air again for 12 hours after someone stole the copper wiring connecting the broadcast tower to the transmitter.
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 members of his family has placed thousands of enormous signs on streets and highways. In television advertising a large part of the budget is used to vilify the leader of the opposition and the editor of La Prensa in a spot aired several times a day since February this year, calling them thieves.
A study by Central American company MEDIA GURU, that keeps a record of all advertisers, published in the weekly magazine CONFIDENCIAL No. 589 and No, 590, shows that the government in 2007 spent $3,672,000 and is projected to spend twice as much – $7 million – this year. A total of 80% of this expenditure is on television, mainly Canal 4, run by the president’s family. Millions are said to have been spent as well on highway signs, also handled by members of the president’s family. While this advertising is on the increase many on-air news outlets have had to shut down due to lack of ads, despite the fact that the president signed an agreement with the Journalists Guild to favor small media – which he has failed to honor.
On Monday, July 7 the Nicaraguan Public Prosecutor’s Office filed charges against 39 persons over a financial bailout undertaken by the government in support of depositors and savers in five banks that failed, issuing Central Bank credits or bonds. The charges also concerned the public auctions of all the remaining assets of the failed banks that the Central Bank carried out. Among the accused are senior officials and former officials of the Central Bank, former cabinet ministers, La Prensa Editor Jaime Chamorro, and Opposition Leader Eduardo Montealegre, former finance minister and currently a candidate for mayor of Managua.
Patricia Delgado Sáenz, executive director of the Association of Municipalities (Amunic) was forced to resign after praising the mayor of Managua, Dionisio Marenco, a Sandinista who has now distanced himself from Ortega, in a report carried in La Prensa. She is the fourth public official to leave her post for making statements in the independent press.
President Ortega, as stipulated in his own communication plan, provides official information only to media that give wholehearted support to his government. In his speeches and through the official media outlets he has attacked civil society organizations that criticize his government policies. The official media have even been ferocious in their attacks on leftist political and social leaders who were once public officials in the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s but who now dissent from government policies.
In this context Carlos F. Chamorro, a journalist and television commentator who also is editor of the weekly Semanario Confidencial, has become the victim of a campaign by official media and is under investigation by officials of the Interior Ministry in his role as president of the NGO Center for Communication Research Association (CINCO) for having signed an agreement with another NGO, Oxfam of Great Britain, and the Autonomous Movement of Women (MAM) to raise funds to promote women’s political rights. The representative of the Interior Ministry investigating the case has not ruled out “money laundering.”
This case, along with that of Jaime Chamorro of La Prensa and others supported by judicial manipulation and connected to press freedom confirm an intolerant attitude and dangerously vengeful actions by the Ortega government against freedom of expression in Nicaragua. The other cases are those of the poet Ernesto Cardenal, the Mejía Godoy singer/songwriters and the International Republican Institute (IRI), which was accused of violating the Constitution and the Electoral Law because it invited former Mexican president Fox to a meeting in Managua.
On a positive note, the new Penal Code, Law 642 (Article 205) on libel, which entered into effect in July, eliminated the direct liability of publishers, editors and owners of publications. It also stipulates that public officials are not libeled when they are criticized, in carrying out their official duties, concerning true facts, or in defense of or linked to the public interest and so long as the news “has been reported in line with journalistic ethics.”
The Supreme Court has yet to rule on an appeal submitted on April 4, 2002 seeking reversal of a decision creating the Journalists Guild as violating the Constitution.
Neither has the Court ruled on a similar appeal filed on July 7, 2005 by representatives of various news media against an amendment to the tax law which, on the pretext of regulating, amended the constitutional mandate exonerating payment of tax on newsprint, machinery and supplies for news media.
Regarding the functioning of the Law on access to Information, a study by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation in alliance with journalists from various media showed that of 10 written requests for access to information four were not answered, either positively or negatively, by the public agency that received the requests. There were two denials of information, one response did not correspond to the information requested, and only three received a positive response. The National Assembly in two requests complied with the law. The Education Ministry and Council of Communication and Citizenry, headed by the president’s wife, did not comply with the law, and the Army claimed the information requested was confidential.