Fighting back against Nicaragua's war on the media

By Carlos Fernando Chamorro on July 2, 2009 4:22 PM ET

What is happening in Nicaragua when it comes to press freedom? A CPJ report found that President Daniel Ortega is waging a war against the media. It consists of smear campaigns, legal and economic pressures, verbal and physical attacks, and a rigorous information embargo against the critical and independent media.

In fact, I have been one of the victims of this war that is being led by a president who I supported during the revolution of the 1980s. But there is no longer a revolution or a counterrevolution in Nicaragua, just pure authoritarianism. In 2007, the government accused me for months of being a "drug trafficker and a delinquent" after I uncovered a corruption scandal. A year later, a prosecutor and the police forcefully raided my offices as part of an investigation into "money laundering."

However, Roberto Larios, president of the group Unión de Periodistas de Nicaragua (UPN), maintains that a government-led war does not exist. Instead, he says, "big media" are waging a war against Ortega's government. But my former colleague at the daily Barricada is trying to ignore the fact that outlets owned by the governing family are also part of this "big media."

These opposing viewpoints were debated on Wednesday in Managua at a forum in which Carlos Lauría, CPJ's Americas' program coordinator, and Mauro Ampié, a lawyer for the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, also participated.

It was the start of a discussion that promises to be intense, complex, and difficult, as the main actors--the government and media owners--were not present at the forum. Nonetheless, we proved that among journalists we are able to debate and find some common ground. My participation in this forum can be summarized into four points:

First, we need a policy of no tolerance for aggression against journalists, whether they are verbal, institutional, or physical. The president must take the lead in this process by putting an end to his constant attacks. Second, we must put an end to the information embargo against the independent media, which violates an elemental democratic principle: Citizens have the right to participate in public decision-making. What's more, in Nicaragua, where we have an excellent law for access to public information, we do not use it for mere lack of political will.

Third, we need an ample and well-documented debate on the new telecommunications law, which will set the rules of the game for assigning and administrating radio and television frequencies. A debate will help us avoid state abuses that could affect press freedom in broadcast media.

Lastly, and I must highlight this point, the best weapons media have in the war against the government are good journalism, investigative rigor, and the promotion of a self-critical attitude and the knowledge that we owe the truth to our audiences. It is much more effective to self-regulate by means of professional and ethical guidelines than by allowing politicians to be tempted into imposing laws that control the press. In order to do so, at the Center for Media Investigations (CINCO), we promote a media observatory that monitors and criticizes the press.

CPJ's report was not hailed by everyone, and perhaps its main virtue is precisely that it created controversy among Nicaraguan journalists. This is a debate that I insist is still in its embryonic phase, but during which, as the daily El Nuevo Diario put it the following day, "the president of the UPN put up a fight in favor of the government," at the least this one time, while discussing the war that is being fought against the media. Hopefully, this will only be a first step.

Carlos Fernando Chamorro heads the Center for Media Investigations (CINCO), a nonprofit group that promotes media research, democracy, and investigative journalism in Nicaragua.

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