8.13.2007

The Chill Wind from Managua

by Rick Rockwell*

In democratic societies, free speech is a right that many take for granted. But it is actually a fragile concept. Just a few symbolic moves from a government can create what journalists call “the chilling effect.”

Challenge the patriotism of journalists. Lock a few in jail. Cancel critical television programs and voila, you have created a climate where expression is circumscribed. And those are just examples from the United States during the past few years.

So what happens when the moves are coming in a young democracy like Nicaragua?

After meeting with more than 150 Nicaraguan journalists during a recent trip, the mood is disquieting. The climate is growing colder. The Sandinistas, in power for eight months now after a gap of more than 15 years, are playing media hardball. They don’t grant interviews. They hold few press conferences. They use the party’s radio stations to attack other media.

And the big media news is El Nuevo Diario, long an independent voice on the left in Nicaragua, has become one of the leading critics of the Sandinistas, although some columnists for the paper still support the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front, by its Spanish acronym).

More than a year before the 2006 elections, at a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association, Francisco “Chico” Chamorro, the paper’s managing editor shared with this author his concerns about Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas. This was an important moment, because elements of the Chamorro family had feuded over supporting the Sandinistas and Chico’s wing of the family had gone with the FSLN during the revolution. What followed was 25 years of support for Ortega by El Nuevo Diario. But no longer. Even before the election, Chico Chamorro felt Ortega was building a cult of personality and evolving into a typical power-hungry caudillo. Now, Chamorro’s paper prints hard hitting commentary and political cartoons about President Ortega and his wife, mocking them in caricatures as Marge and Homer Simpson, running the country into the ground while chanting simpleton slogans.

Chico’s cousin Carlos Fernando Chamorro has also found himself feuding with the Sandinistas. Carlos Fernando is probably the most revered journalist in the country. His weekly television magazine Esta Semana is one of the top programs in the country, a Nicaraguan version of 60 Minutes. When Carlos Fernando exposed corruption by a high-level Sandinista in the National Assembly, the party’s radio and television outlets smeared him with stories that he had ties to narcotics traffickers. “These are very personal attacks,” Carlos Fernando says now, two months after the broadcast counter-attack, “I’m sure they were approved at the highest levels.”

Some may not remember that Carlos Fernando was the founder of Barricada, the legendary Sandinista newspaper. After the party fell out of power in 1990, Carlos Fernando recreated the newspaper as a modern, independent voice, even producing investigative reports that exposed questionable practices by the Sandinistas and their allies on the left. That cost Carlos Fernando his job, when Commandante Tomas Borge showed up at the paper with a group of bodyguards to send Carlos Fernando packing. Many years later, it seems the Sandinistas are still out to settle a score.

And Ortega has also dropped hints that he might follow the example of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and review the licenses of powerful media outlets, including Canal 2, the country’s leading television network. Canal 2 has leaned toward the right quite a bit, but it also exposed the corruption of President Arnoldo Aleman, a politician the network had once enthusiastically backed. Also checking the old scores department: the FSLN had seized Canal 2 when it was in power but the network was restored to its original owners after the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election.

Finally, Ortega recently sacked Nicaragua’s ambassador to France for giving an exclusive interview to La Prensa, the longtime conservative opposition paper. Ambassador Oscar Rene Vargas wasn’t just fired for breaking the FSLN ban on interviews to independent media, but because he told the paper these days it was “dangerous to think” if you were a high-level Sandinista.

It seems a chilly wind is blowing from Managua, looking to dampen both free thinking and free expression in that troubled land.

*Rick Rockwell traveled extensively through Nicaragua in July and August speaking about democracy and free press issues. His lecture series was supported by the U.S. State Department. He is the co-author of Media Power in Central America.

(The photo is one of President Daniel Ortega's campaign posters. Ortega's posters remain prominent throughout Nicaragua and have recently been joined by a new group of posters promoting the president as a champion of the poor and of democracy.)

For more background on this story, please see: "Letter from Nicaragua."










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