Lively debate on the state of press freedom in Managua

Minutes after I woke up to get ready for the presentation of a CPJ report on press freedom conditions in Nicaragua, I turned on the TV. Nicaragua was shaken by the sudden death of Managua’s mayor, Alexis Arguello, who was found at home with a gunshot wound to his chest. Arguello, who had won three world boxing titles for Nicaragua and was considered the greatest athlete in the country’s history, committed suicide, according to several local press reports. While an autopsy is pending and authorities are investigating his death, on Wednesday the government declared three days of mourning. 

The impact of this major news event in the local media challenged our efforts to capture the attention of the Nicaraguan press. But the support of prominent journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who heads the Center for Media Investigations (CINCO), a nonprofit group that promotes media research, democracy, and investigative journalism, and from CENIDH, the leading Nicaraguan human rights organization, brought together a good number of reporters representing the main news organizations and press groups. Among them was leading women’s rights activist and journalist Sofía Montenegro, who has also suffered legal persecution during Daniel Ortega’s tenure.

Chamorro, CENIDH’s lawyer Mauro Ampie Vilchez, and Roberto Larios, president of the pro-Ortega press group Unión de Periodistas de Nicaragua, were invited by CPJ to offer their comments on the report.

Before presenting the CPJ report, I took the opportunity to once again express our concern about the situation for the press in Honduras. According to CPJ research, since the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, reporters have been detained and military personnel have temporarily closed several broadcasters and blocked signals of international networks. I reiterated our call to Honduran authorities to allow the press to report freely without fear of reprisal.

During his opening comments, Chamorro thanked CPJ for putting a spotlight on the situation of the press in Nicaragua. The host of “Esta Noche” and “Esta Semana” on privately owned Channel 8 said that the flow of information cannot depend on Ortega’s government discretion. “It is a right of all Nicaraguan citizens,” added Chamorro, criticizing Ortega’s strategy to ignore and disparage the private media. “When the information doesn’t flow with transparency, democracy is hurt,” Chamorro said.

Chamorro said that Ortega prides himself on making Nicaragua a participatory democracy. It is an obvious contradiction to his strategy of isolation and secrecy towards public scrutiny, added Chamorro. He said that despite Ortega’s attempts to intimidate and harass independent critics in the media, there have been great efforts by a new generation of Nicaraguan journalists to promote public transparency and responsibility.

Chamorro expressed concern over the lack of commitment by Nicaraguan officials to comply with the law on access to public information, and argued that those officials who don’t comply should be sanctioned, as established by this provision. He praised CPJ’s recommendations in the report but expressed skepticism that Ortega will comply with any of them.

CENIDH’s Ampie Vilchez said that there is a pattern of systematic attacks on freedom of expression by the Nicaraguan government that is damaging the health of democracy. He pointed out that in the cases of attacks and threats against journalists and human rights defenders there is total impunity in judicial investigations. Ampie Vilchez said that by engaging on attacks on the press and launching systematic campaigns to discredit independent journalists, Nicaragua is violating international standards on freedom of expression.

Pro-government Roberto Larios harshly criticized our report, offering comments that looked like they had been written by Ortega or his wife, Rosario Murillo. Without specifically addressing the substance of the report, Larios compared it with a U.S. State Department document. He argued that it didn’t represent the position of numerous Nicaraguan journalists but the view of the “media owners that represent the oligarchy.” Most of his assertions resembled the arguments of the Nicaraguan government. Although Larios was not capable of providing an elaborate response to CPJ’s conclusions, his comments did spark a lively debate with journalists and activists in the audience that lasted more than 90 minutes.