When Nicaragua began preliminary work on an interoceanic waterway designed to handle ships too big for the Panama Canal, some of the foreign correspondents who had flown in to cover the December groundbreaking were left high and dry.
Government officials told them to wait in a Managua hotel for a bus that would transport them to the ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to the Nicaragua Dispatch. But the bus never showed up. Tim Rogers, editor of the online news outlet, said that journalists who traveled to the Pacific coast site on their own were turned back by police. Wang Jing, a Chinese businessman who heads HKND Group, a consortium that has partnered with the Nicaraguan government to build the canal, apologized at a news conference the next day.
Whether it was an organizational error or deliberate attempt to keep reporters away, journalists here told the Committee to Protect Journalists that the incident reflects the atmosphere of secrecy surrounding the $50 billion project that is scheduled to be completed in 2020.
"It has been very difficult to report on the canal due to a lack of official information," said Rezaye Álvarez, a journalist at the independent Managua daily La Prensa. "Until recently, the Chinese company didn't even have an office. I asked for an interview but there was no place to take my letter of request."
The difficulties have been especially frustrating for the media given the project's potential impact on the impoverished Central American nation. President Daniel Ortega's government claims the canal will double the size of the Nicaraguan economy and create 50,000 jobs. But there are growing concerns among Nicaraguans about its environmental footprint and a 2013 law, passed by the legislature with little public debate, that allows the government to expropriate thousands of properties to make way for the canal. These concerns have given rise to protests and clashes between demonstrators and anti-riot police.
Belgian photographer and filmmaker Michéle Sennesael, who was working on a project about how those living along the canal's route would be affected by its construction, had a run in with authorities, according to news reports. She told the independent newsweekly Confidencial that police raided her hotel room and seized her camera gear and images. Sennesael, who was expelled from the country after her arrest, spent one night in detention before she was driven to the Managua airport on December 22. She told Confidencial that she was never given a reason for her arrest.
The waterway is one of the biggest news stories in Nicaragua since Ortega and his fellow Sandinista rebels overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in the 1979 revolution. When finished, the more than 170-mile long waterway will be deeper, wider, and three times longer than the Panama Canal. It will involve the dredging of parts of Lake Nicaragua, Central America's largest lake, as well as the flooding of vast tracts of jungle to build an artificial lake. There will be so much digging and dredging that HKND Group described it in a project brochure as the "largest civil earth-moving operation in history." According to an estimate by the Guardian, so much soil will be removed that it would cover Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building. In addition to the canal, HKND Group said it plans to build ports, free trade zones, an international airport, and resorts.
However, detailed information on how the canal will be financed, its exact route, the environmental consequences, and which properties will be seized have not yet emerged even as work on the project begins, journalists said.
In addition, HKND Group has so far failed to provide to the public an in-depth study on the commercial viability of the project or its environmental impact. The Hong Kong-based consortium regularly turns down interview requests, including CPJ's. Wang has appeared at a couple of brief news conferences but reporters told CPJ that his answers have been opaque and that so much time is lost in translating them from Chinese to Spanish that very little information emerges.
"The main source of information on HKND has been their website because neither the company nor the government provide much information," an editor at a Managua newspaper, who asked not to be named out of job security concerns, told CPJ. "Nobody knows who HKND is. Nobody knows how they will finance the canal."
Journalists say that when it comes to press coverage Ortega's government is treating the canal like it does with most other issues: in secret.
Ortega, who headed the Sandinista revolutionary government in the 1980s, has given only one news conference since he returned to power following his controversial victory with just 38 percent of the vote in the 2006 presidential election. Ortega often gives speeches but takes no questions from independent journalists, according to a 2009 CPJ special report. Government officials, in turn, routinely refuse or ignore interview requests even though they are supposed to provide timely and accurate information under Nicaragua's public information law.
The report also found that to ensure Ortega's views reach the public "uncontaminated" by critical media, government officials maintain contact with only a handful of pro-government outlets controlled by the president's family or ruling Sandinista party. That policy remains in place today, said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of Confidencial and host of the TV program "Esta Noche," which is critical of the government.
"We have the same problem covering [the] canal as any other public issue," Chamorro told CPJ. "There is zero access for independent media and no opportunity to secure information or interviews."
When Confidencial published a special edition about the financial links between HKND Group and more than a dozen Chinese companies, much of the information was gleaned from sources in China by Mónica López Baltodano, a Managua lawyer and anti-canal activist who spent months investigating the consortium.
López told CPJ that secrecy is key for both the Ortega government and HKND Group. Based on her research, López believes that even if HKND fails to raise the $50 billion required to build the canal, it could push ahead with free trade zones and other projects that may be more profitable and less expensive. But to pass the required legislation, including the law that allows for massive expropriation, she said the Ortega government "had to sell Nicaraguans on the dream of the canal."
In an interview with CPJ, Telémaco Talavera, the spokesman for the government-run Nicaraguan canal authority, insisted that he was accessible to journalists and that there was no information blackout surrounding the waterway. Talavera referred many questions, including those about how the canal would be financed, to HKND which did not respond to interview requests.
[Reporting from Managua]