MEDIA REPORTS ON OFFICIAL CORRUPTION RAISED TENSIONS between the press and the Nicaraguan government, which claimed that the media was engaged in a conspiracy to tarnish its achievements.
In March, newspapers reported that Director of General Revenues Byron Jerez, the chief tax collector, had allegedly written almost half a million dollars in checks for fraudulent purposes. Three months later, Jerez was forced to resign after a report by the Comptroller General’s Office found that the official, who is also a close ally of President Arnoldo Alemán and a high-ranking member of the ruling Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), had broken the law. Journalists scored another victory when a Comptroller’s Office resolution confirmed newspaper allegations that Jerez had built himself a summer house with funds earmarked for Hurricane Mitch assistance. Jerez’s various alleged misdeeds were first uncovered by the weekly Confidencial in the course of a four-month investigation.
There were credible reports that the government used tax audits to punish critical media. In late August, the Managua daily La Prensa, which is allied with the Nicaraguan Conservative Party (PCN), decried government attempts to collect more than 6 million córdobas (US$500,000) in tax penalties from the paper. The penalties resulted from a 1999 audit that was conducted shortly after La Prensa published a report on government corruption. On October 3, the Appeals Court halted the tax collection efforts, but a final decision was still pending at year’s end. Tax authorities have reportedly harassed other media organizations as well, including the television channels Canal 2 and Telenica Canal 8.
The PLC-led government is the country’s largest advertiser and has often been accused of manipulating the flow of official advertising to reward or punish the media. Opposition media continued to complain that the official newspaper La Noticia received a disproportionate share of state advertising. In late August, La Prensa denounced the government tax agency for placing 6.4 times more advertising with La Noticia than with La Prensa during a six-month period, even though La Prensa‘s circulation was almost ten times that of La Noticia. In September, President Alemán promised that political criteria would no longer influence state advertising policy.
At the end of March, the storied Sandinista daily Barricada, which had closed in January 1998 after becoming too critical of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) leadership, reopened as the official FSLN weekly newspaper. Dependent on local party members for its circulation, Barricada‘s new incarnation proved brief: the paper closed down in July.
In February, Alemán announced in his weekly radio broadcast on a government-owned station that his administration planned to pass a minimum wage law for journalists. While the journalists’ organization Asociación de Periodistas de Nicaragua supported the measure, many media outlets saw it as populist and politically motivated, contending that it would pit journalists against media owners. Some journalists argued that the minimum wage bill should be carefully considered, since low, unregulated wages have increased pressures for journalists to sell advertisements to politicians and businessmen in exchange for favorable coverage. Facing strong opposition from media owners, the measure was shelved temporarily in late March.
In May, the National Assembly approved a general version of the new Criminal Code. Although Article 372 guarantees a right to information, it contains other articles protecting individual privacy that could stifle investigative reporting. On December 13, the Legislative Assembly passed a law calling for compulsory registration of journalists in the Colegio de Periodistas de Nicaragua. (In 1985, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica ruled that laws requiring the mandatory licensing of journalists violate the American Convention on Human Rights.)