Attacks on the Press 1999: Nicaragua

A tense political tug-of-war between government and the press continued as a recalcitrant executive branch persisted in using its power to punish critical media.

Relations between the Nicaraguan press and President Arnoldo Alemán have long been strained. Journalists charge that Alemán tends to impede access, particularly to journalists investigating his personal conduct and alleging that he is enriching himself at the nation’s expense.

The Alemán government often uses political criteria to decide which publications will receive state advertising revenues. In 1999, a start-up newspaper called La Noticia, which accounts for less than 2 percent of the country’s total print media circulation, received nearly 25 percent of the government’s advertisements. The daily newspaper La Prensa was subjected to a tax audit that resulted in penalties against the paper, which is appealing the decision. La Prensa reporter Eduardo Marenco believes the audit was intended as a “political punishment for our reporting on presumed government corruption.”

The constitution provides for a right to “accurate information” and describes the right to inform as a “social responsibility.” These provisions could theoretically be used to restrict press freedom, but the government has not used them that way to date.

While libel and slander are offenses under the country’s penal code, only money damages, not jail terms, are issued as sentences. Also, defamation actions remain private: the government is powerless to pursue a case without the approval of the injured party. While this system is relatively enlightened by Latin American standards, there have been rumblings of new laws that would impose stiffer penalties for defamation and require journalists to be licensed by the state. However, no such legislation had been proposed by year’s end.