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  Number 342 | Enero 2010
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Nicaragua

A Decision of Principles and a Challenge to Ortega

Carlos Fernando Chamorro directed the Sunday TV news program “Esta Semana” for ten years and the nightly ”Esta Noche” for five. Channel 8, which broadcast these highly rated programs, was bought in January with Venezuelan capital administered by President Daniel Ortega. On January 24, Chamorro bid his audience farewell with this message, which reveals fundamental aspects of the national reality related to the mass media.

Carlos F. Chamorro

We have received a veritable avalanche of opinions in the great public debate unleashed by the dilemma facing the journalists of “Esta Semana” and “Esta Noche.” Some say we should stay at Channel 8 until we’re fired in order to test the regime’s tolerance. Others think we should go so as not to fall into the game of a kind of media pact with Ortega. After meditating deeply about all the options, we have made a decision: This will be the last edition of “Esta Semana” on Channel 8, and it falls to me to explain our reasons. This is a decision based on principles, not convenience. We have nothing to gain by leaving Channel 8. No other channel, at the moment, is prepared to broadcast this program. But if we stay, a lot would be lost in terms of the congruence and ethical coherence that has guided my life as a journalist.

Let’s begin by analyzing what is behind the buying and selling of Telenica Channel 8. Since the sale of this channel was confirmed, broad sectors of public opinion have demanded that the buyers and the origin of the funding be made known. As this is a part of the mass media, it is a subject of legitimate public interest. What reasons could there be to hide a transaction of this nature? To date, no one person or legal body has stood up and said: “I am the new owner of Channel 8.” Likewise we know of no legal document that says: “This is the body that acquired this channel’s shares, and will take responsibility from here on.” For us it is materially and legally impossible to explain something healthy with nonexistent subjects, hiding in the shadows of the night.

Former owner Carlos Briceño—with whom I signed a contract to produce “Esta Semana” and “Esta Noche” paying a percentage of the announcements as a levy—has said he’s not obliged to reveal to whom he sold the channel, and that furthermore the contract obliges him to keep it anonymous. After various fruitless communications, I sent him a formal letter, reminding him that on modifying the nature of Telenica as an autonomous and independent television channel—because it is now associated with party and governmental political interests—the nature of the other party with which I had signed these contracts has been abruptly changed. And, as a consequence, there has been a unilateral dissolution of the contract. For this reason I invited him to establish a friendly arbitration mechanism with me based on equity to transparently resolve the consequences of his de facto rupture of the contract. So far there has been no response.

We do know three indisputable truths thanks to reliable sources linked to the negotiation and to journalistic investigations in various media: first, that this transaction—for $10 million, over 200 million córdobas—was financed with funds from Venezuelan cooperation, which were supposedly destined to combat poverty and help the most needy. There is proof that the funds came from the coffers of Albanisa, a company managed discretionally to finance the businesses of the president and presidential family.

Second, that the State’s regulatory body, Telcor, which is responsible for regulating telecommunications and administering the radio-electric spectrum, participated in this negotiation not as an arbiter watching over the public’s interests but as a representative of one of the parties: the buyer. This demonstrates the serious confusion between State-party-family that has degraded Nicaragua. In any democratic society in which the rule of law prevails, these indicators would be sufficient motive for the director of Telcor to be investigated for alleged violation of the law, but here these officials function under total impunity.

Third, the only one who indirectly seems to be taking responsibility for this operation is the FSLN Secretariat, where the ruler’s power is concentrated. Who, therefore, is the new owner of Channel 8? The FSLN Secretariat, Ortega, his family financial group, or all of them at the same time? In any case, it has to do with the most powerful group in the country, which always plays with the dice loaded in its favor, because in the climate of legal insecurity that reigns around the issue of radio frequencies, only those protected by the government can buy a television channel this way. The same story is repeated in the granting of licenses for energy development, tourism or foreign trade, while businesspeople adjust to looking for protection and the favor of the Ortega group, all in the best Somoza style.

These three proofs are evidence enough for a journalist who has openly criticized the privatization of Venezuelan cooperation and its diversion to finance the ruler’s private businesses and feels morally inhibited from developing a relationship with the buyers of Channel 8, because to maintain it, particularly in this climate of total obscurity, would be the same as indirectly becoming a kind of money-grubbing associate of Ortega.

In a country whose moral fiber is undermined by pacts and by excessive money interests and corruption, I’m not going to lend myself to being marked as an accomplice of Mr. Ortega.

When, in 2007, they invented a slanderous investigation about me for money laundering and threatened me with prison, I said I preferred to go to jail than to ever accept being hostage to extortion politics. Today, I ratify to Nicaraguan society that I have no desire to be an associate or collaborator of Mr. Ortega, directly or indirectly; in either his financial affairs or his political affairs that seek to help clean his authoritarian image.

I have absolutely nothing personal against Ortega or his family. What I question as both a critical journalist and a citizen is his regime based on the abuse of power, violations of the law, family enrichment with public funds, ongoing blackmail and the threat of violence. This system of intimidation, which has a large part of society terrorized, assumes that everyone in Nicaragua has a price: businesspeople, magistrates, justices, legislative representatives and even journalists.

Furthermore, what they have bought here is a means of communication, not a bakery. A television channel, however private it may be, has obligations and commitments to the State and to public opinion. We are therefore obliged to call Ortega to account for his record on the issue of free speech during his three years in government. These are the visible results: Secrecy in managing public information and a systematic violation of the Law of Access to Public Information; verbal and physical aggression against independent journalists; blackmail and manipulation using state publicity; the imposing of conditions for expired radio and television licenses; financial pressure on journalists using the tax and customs system and the instigation of lawsuits against journalists for libel and slander.

This is the dossier they will try to clean with the purchase of Channel 8. No one is more interested in my staying on this channel than Ortega. The continuation of “Esta Semana” and “Esta Noche” would authenticate his record of abuses against freedom of speech committed during his term of office. Even worse, they want to make us accomplices to his aggressive policy against other media and journalists, given that my remaining on this channel would express levels of tolerance which the regime has never had nor will ever have towards the independent press as a whole.

We, the journalists who produce “Esta Semana” and “Esta Noche” form part of a broad conglomeration of the independent press and civil society, which is risking its credibility every day under the hounding of Ortega’s policy. We share a common democratic commitment with them, assuming all the risks that implies. That is why, although we respect the decision of those colleagues who are continuing to work in Channel 8 today, our decision based on principles aims at consistency and solidarity in the face of the harassment faced by other colleagues who are still subjected to the official siege.

Some people allege that Orteguismo should be given the benefit of the doubt, even though we have seen no change in his aggressive policy against the press. On the contrary, those who are now heading up this channel making offers of tolerance, are the very same people who direct the official media, and slanderously accused us of being criminals and drug traffickers when the Tola corruption case was uncovered on this program in 2007. From then on, the regime dissipated the little credibility granted by the post-electoral honeymoon and began the black defamation campaign against journalists, media and civil society organizations that became a systematic practice.

It thus smacks of cynicism and wins them no credibility when they offer free speech on Channel 8 as if it were a gift, while at the same time increasing the threat against the other TV channels and radio stations to shut off the arenas of critical journalism. It is for this reason that we don’t accept their attempt to establish the permanence or not of this program on their new television channel as a measure of Ortega’s tolerance of free speech.

The real test Ortega should pass lies in establishing a regime with full democratic liberties. They should stop threatening violence against citizens who want to demonstrate and express themselves on the streets; the government should remove the gun from the temple of television channels and radio stations; Telcor should act as an impartial and professional body and not as a subsidiary favoring Orteguismo’s affairs; they should stop harassing journalists and should lift the official blockade against independent journalism once and for all. Could Ortega’s government pass this test? This is the challenge we throw down today.

Many people ask me if there are any possibilities that “Esta Semana” and “Esta Noche” could be broadcast on other channels, maintaining their independent editorial line. Unfortunately, there’s no agreement with another channel at this time, so I can’t ensure that these programs will reappear any time soon. We hope that these doors will open and I trust that we’ll find alternatives in the near future. In the meantime, I have a deep faith that Nicaragua will change irreversibly when we all begin to take decisions founded on ethical principles.

The decision we have announced today is inspired by that spirit of change. I cannot betray my father’s legacy of coherent ethics or the values I inherited from my father and mother, which are the same ones I share with my wife and children, and that I am sure also inspire thousands of Nicaraguans who are committed to achieving a real democratic change in this country.

In addition to these hopefully temporarily suspended TV news programs, Carlos Fernando Chamorro directs the Cinco research organization and the investigative bulletin Confidencial.

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