Attacks on the Press 2009: Nicaragua

Top Developments
• Ortega administration marginalizes private media.

• Authorities use legal harassment, smears against critics.

Key Statistic
0: Number of press conferences held by Ortega since taking office.

Three decades after a revolution swept the Sandinistas into power, the government of President Daniel Ortega still cast private media as enemies and moved forcefully to curtail their influence. Ortega—who led the 1979 uprising against the Somoza dictatorship and reclaimed the presidency in 2006 elections—employed a range of tactics to marginalize the press, including legal persecution, smear campaigns to discredit adversaries, and manipulation of state advertising to punish critical outlets.


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Regional Analysis:
In the Americas,
Big Brother is watching reporters

Country Summaries
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Other developments

The administration ignored private media outlets and disparaged their work. Local reporters had no access to Ortega or his close advisers, and were often excluded from government events. Ortega himself remained an elusive figure: His agenda was a political mystery and his health a state secret, although reports widely speculated that the president had lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease. The Sandinista leader had not given a press conference since he took office in early 2007.

First Lady Rosario Murillo, a virtual prime minister who manages all of the government’s communications, exerted strict control over Ortega’s agenda. Officials in the executive branch were allowed to talk to the press only with her permission. Except for contact with a few pro-government outlets controlled by the president’s family or the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party, the Nicaraguan leader kept himself out of the public eye. Officials said that his isolation from public scrutiny sought to ensure that the administration’s views reached the public “uncontaminated” by critical media.

The government was not interested in communicating with the Nicaraguan people through the media, Human Rights Ombudsman Omar Cabezas told CPJ during a visit in April. “We establish our own agenda: We talk when we want, to say what we want,” said Nicaragua’s top human rights official.

CPJ documented the president’s aggressive stance toward the press in a July special report. In the report, “Daniel Ortega’s Media War,” CPJ urged the administration to ensure that the media receive equitable access and treatment; that it halt legal harassment and smear efforts; and that it end the use of inflammatory anti-press language. Ortega’s animosity toward the press, CPJ found, was driven by decades-old resentment with roots in the first Sandinista government.

Supporters of Ortega took issue with CPJ’s findings. Roberto Larios Meléndez, president of the Union of Nicaraguan Journalists, said the report “looked like a document written by the [U.S.] State Department in the 1980s,” and called it part of the “low-intensity war that the Nicaraguan far-right is fighting to oust the government with the support of international organizations.” Larios’ criticism echoed rhetoric used by Ortega to vilify press critics as either CIA sponsored or oligarchy controlled. Larios did not dispute the factual elements of CPJ’s report.

An April report by the Media Observatory at the Center for Media Investigations (CINCO), a nonprofit that promotes media research, also found that the administration pursued an adversarial media agenda. “Ortega is living a revolution déjà vu: Thirty years after the FSLN victory the enemy is still the same,” wrote the report’s author, Eduardo Marenco. The Sandinista leader himself used similar language in a March interview with Al-Jazeera English, saying that Nicaragua is fighting “a media war, a war of ideas.”

The government used the official media apparatus—composed of Channel 4 television, Nueva Radio Ya, and the news Web site El 19—to launch character attacks against critics in the media, CPJ research showed. In March, for example, Channel 4 aired a series of ads attacking the director of the Managua-based daily El Nuevo Diario, Francisco Chamorro, and its news editor, Danilo Aguirre, as “fascists.” The paper’s dismissal of reporter Eloisa Ibarra became pretext for a smear campaign that included a photo montage linking Chamorro and Aguirre to Nazi swastikas. Ibarra said she was fired for union activism; El Nuevo Diario said it was over her performance. 

The most egregious example of government intimidation was aimed at Carlos Fernando Chamorro, former editor of the Sandinista magazine Barricada in the 1980s, who now runs the magazine Confidencial, serves as president of CINCO, and hosts the television news programs “Esta Semana” (This Week) and “Esta Noche” (This Night). Chamorro is one of the most critical and best-known journalists in the country. It was on “Esta Semana” that Chamorro exposed a multimillion-dollar extortion scheme involving the Sandinista Party and influence peddling in the judiciary.

After the story aired in 2007, Channel 4 and Nueva Radio Ya broadcast unfounded ads connecting Chamorro to international drug trafficking. The government intensified its attack in September 2008, launching an inquiry into whether CINCO and other nonprofits were illegally funneling foreign investments to other civil society groups. CINCO’s Managua offices were raided and Chamorro was interrogated.

In February 2009, after an international outcry, the Attorney General’s office dropped the criminal case against CINCO and the other organizations. Chamorro credited international attention for the government’s decision to drop the matter. “Thanks to this wave of national and international solidarity, this case set a precedent: When citizens are right and express the truth, especially when they are driven to resist and not to be intimidated, sooner or later the government will have to take a step back,” he wrote in Confidencial.

Private media executives complained about a biased system of distributing government advertising that effectively punished critical outlets while rewarding supportive press. The Sandinista government spent 80 percent of its US$3.5 million advertising budget in 2007-08 for spots on Channel 4, which is run by Ortega’s sons, according to Confidencial. Administration officials said they were following practices established by their predecessors. Preceding governments, for example, had boycotted Sandinista media, human rights ombudsman Cabezas argued. 

In September, Nicaraguan authorities organized a forum for FSLN-affiliated journalists that, among other things, proclaimed mainstream media—including television channels 2, 8, 10, and 12, as well as the dailies La Prensa, and El Nuevo Diario—to be “enemies” of the Ortega government. A bill before Congress would require all journalists to have authorization from a Sandinista journalist group, the Nicaraguan Journalists Association, to work in any media. The bill sparked immediate opposition from independent journalists who said it was an obvious attempt to regulate the profession. The bill was pending in late year.

In October, the Supreme Court overturned constitutional prohibitions on consecutive presidential re-election and service of more than two terms, clearing the way for Ortega to run again in 2011. The opposition and the private press harshly criticized the ruling. El Nuevo Diario described the decision as a “legal obscenity” and said it was “an assault against the social peace” in Nicaragua. In an editorial, La Prensa said that the Supreme Court’s decision was an “absurd and grotesque” attack against the constitution.