In the rocky transition from the Sandinista government to the new UNO one, the electronic media have been among the more visible arenas of struggle. Seeing the airwaves as key to ideological hegemony, the new government has made quick moves to assert control, and is being met by determined Sandinista resistance at each step.
On inauguration day, the state-owned radio and television stations were turned over to the incoming government. Former contra radio station director Frank Arana was appointed to head the state-owned radio station La Voz de Nicaragua. Carlos Briceño, producer of UNO's flashy TV news program during the electoral campaign, took on management of the two government channels. Changes in both media were visible immediately. On what was now to be called Sistema Nacional (rather than “Sandinista”) de Televisión (SNTV), the 8 pm news had a new look, with more US-style human interest stories and less hard news. The familiar announcers were gone and new reporters brought by Briceño from Miami appeared alongside the old. Every news show seemed an ideological tug of war, with each story reflecting the views of the reporter covering it.
Though initially much of the entertainment programming remained the same, SNTV began airing a new program called Democracia en Marcha, featuring interviews with government representatives and their supporters. One media critic described its content as a “cult of obsequiousness.” Cardinal Obando's Mass, often laden with not-so-subtle political messages, is now broadcast every Sunday without charge. Throughout the daily programming, messages appear from President Chamorro, calling for peace and reconciliation.
For now, a critical voice is also heard in a series of programs by independent producers who purchase time from SNTV. These include an alternative nightly news program, Extravisión, directed by the former Sandinista Minister of Information, Manuel Espinoza, and several weekly news and commentary shows.
The state-owned radio station, La Voz, lost much of its voice even before the UNO takeover; 85% of its staff departed to found a new station with a Sandinista perspective, Radio Ya. They took with them the personalities and programming that had given the station a whopping first place in share of the listening audience. Popular call-in programs like Contacto 620 (renamed Contacto 600 for its new frequency), which had given listeners free rein to criticize Sandinista government officials and otherwise speak their minds, now continue playing the gadfly from a different spot on the dial. A recent survey published in Chamorro-owned La Prensa showed the new station had already recaptured its old share of radio listeners.
La Voz, renamed Radio Nicaragua, shifted from dynamic, participatory programming to music broken up with short news breaks, profiles of government leaders and excerpts from their speeches. Even though its ratings plummeted, director Arana defended the new approach. “Gossip, vulgarity and offensiveness are finished. This station will become a high-class medium, with a scientific and professional focus.”
State vs. Media WorkersThough the new directors of the official media brought in handpicked allies to fill key positions, the majority of the staff from Sandinista days remained. Conflicts quickly emerged. After one day of work under the new administration, the SNTV workers' union called a meeting with their boss to discuss censorship, salaries and respect for the collective bargaining agreement. When Briceño did not appear, they shut down TV transmission until the issues could be discussed. The detonating factor in their protest was the censorship of three news reports the night before: stories about the new Minister of Agriculture's absence on his first day of work, the melee that broke out during UNO's inaugural fiesta in the Plaza of the Revolution and a street survey about General Humberto Ortega's continued presence as head of the army. Workers protested that their collective decision-making process had been replaced with an authoritarian one and that only one perspective was being presented.
When agreement was reached on wage increases and Briceño promised the news would reflect all points of view, rightwing pressure to eliminate Sandinista influence quickly surfaced on the pages of La Prensa and on Radio Corporación, the big business station. The network “is directly or indirectly proselytizing for the Sandinista party,” wrote one La Prensa reader who demanded the firing of FSLN sympathizers among the news staff. At least for now, however, Briceño is sticking close to his promise. For example, FSLN leader Omar Cabezas' eloquent rebuttal to government accusations of Sandinista government corruption was given several minutes of airtime on the evening news.
In mid-May, during the public employees' strike, another conflict emerged at SNTV. News coverage of the strike featured extensive interviews with workers opposing the walkout and minimal time to union leaders' explanations of their demands. In protest, SNTV workers filmed a three and a half minute segment that gave strikers a chance to speak and expressed TV workers' support for their demands. The spot appeared one hour before the news, just as a popular soap opera was about to begin. Taken by surprise, the network management reacted angrily, calling the action sabotage and threatening reprisals. The union held firm and master control technicians said they would strike if camera operators or reporters were fired. In the end, no layoffs occurred and Briceño permitted the union to air another short communiqué on the strike, preceded by a management disclaimer.
At the beginning of July, in the midst of another wave of strikes and angry protests by secondary students at the cancellation of free bus passes for students and teachers, Briceño created another scandal. When a group of students went to SNTV to demand airtime on “Democracia en Marcha,” Briceño arrived and angrily fired the program's camera operator and camera prompter, neither of whom had exceeded their authority in any way. Detailed exposure of the circumstances in the pro-Sandinista media forced Briceño to rescind his firings in negotiation with the students the following day. The students were also promised airtime.
Despite these small victories, union spokespersons are pessimistic. They say the more political news stories are assigned to Briceño's cronies and that he retains veto power over their work. Controversial issues are dealt with in a superficial manner and the government always gets the last world. “It’s a lie that they want impartial reporting; the news responds to government interests,” commented one SNTV union representative. Overall, longtime staff fears a shift away from local programming that has promoted Nicaraguan culture and values to "canned” programs imported from abroad. Hosts for locally produced programs, even children's shows, are being replaced. With the teeth knocked out of the civil service law, union leaders fear it will not be long before massive politically inspired layoffs take place.
The new director of Radio Nicaragua has already fired at least 16 employees, arguing that the station must be reorganized. Union leaders view the action as a “political witch hunt” that violated collective bargaining contract provisions for prior consultation with the union. They demanded reinstatement for those laid off and said they would appeal to the Ministry of Labor to overturn Arana's decision.
Independent VoicesWith the state-owned media now in UNO hands and Radio Corporación and Radio Católica serving as mouthpieces of different factions of the far Right, the non-governmental media has taken on a more significant role in FSLN efforts to maintain contact with its base. Though the state still monopolizes the TV dial, former FSLN Minister of Tourism Herty Lewites and pro-Sandinista newspaper El Nuevo Diario have announced plans for future channels. (On the other end of the political spectrum, so have Carlos Briceño, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Jr. and media entrepreneur Mariano Valle.)
Besides Radio Sandino and Radio Ya, which both reflect a Sandinista perspective, a number of other independent stations among those confiscated from Somoza and his close associates after the 1979 triumph also maintain their revolutionary commitment. Under the Sandinista government, they had become part of a quasi-state network of 17 radios around the country called CORADEP, founded with the idea that radio should not only inform but also give its listeners a means of expression. Some of these participatory stations developed networks of “popular correspondents” who phoned in news from neighborhoods and workplaces.
After UNO won the elections, CORADEP was disbanded. Rather than being handed to the central government as Chamorro representatives expected, the 14 stations outside Managua were turned over to the newly elected local governments, five of them Sandinista and nine UNO. Former CORADEP head Arnulfo Urrutia explains that the stations really serve the local communities and therefore logically fall within the jurisdiction of the mayors' offices.
But there was also a political reason. 'There's no reason to hide it,” said Urrutia. “We were trying to preserve space to express points of view that are not those of the new government.” In a number of cases, the original staff of local stations signed contracts before the new municipal governments took office, renting all or part of the airtime. Some local UNO officials, like the mayor of Matagalpa, are challenging these contracts, and in Nueva Guinea the UNO municipal government has laid off all the former staff.
Of the three CORADEP stations in Managua, two were sold to private individuals. The Sandinista government donated the third—the flagship CORADEP station La Primerísima—to a newly-formed association of radio professionals (APRANIC) which includes the station's workers. According to director William Grigsby, when austerity forced state budget cuts in 1989, his staff sacrificed to keep the station going, enduring long hours, miserable salaries and no benefits. Despite the difficulties, by the time of the elections, La Primerísima had reached audience levels higher than ever before and hoped to be in the black soon. “We feel that we have every right to be the owners of this radio station,” Grigsby said.
Though its political bent is decidedly revolutionary, Grigsby stresses the station's independence. Unlike some stations, “We don't want to have organic ties with any particular party,” he said. “We don't want anyone telling us what to do.” His news and commentary show, Sin Fronteras, thrashes both UNO policy and Sandinista concessions. In recent months, undemocratic practices within the FSLN have come under heavy fire on his show.
With the change in government, a number of former owners of CORADEP stations have announced intentions to reclaim their confiscated property. Mariano Valle says his family owned 11 stations before 1979, including what is now La Primerísima. In April, he and other former radio entrepreneurs published an open letter to President Chamorro in La Prensa, detailing their claims and calling on her to return their stations and annul any transfers of property that may have taken place. The government has not specifically responded to the request, but National Assembly vice president Luis Sánchez has said Sandinista privatizations of CORADEP stations must be overturned and these returned to the government.
UNO on the OffensiveDespite UNO rhetoric about “freedom of expression,” the government is harassing the opposition media on a variety of fronts. Reporters at Radio Sandino and Radio Ya complain that they are not informed of government press conferences and communiqués and have been denied access to telephones in the presidential office building to file reports. After rightwing complaints about its political orientation, the pro-Sandinista TV news program Extravisión is now preceded and followed by a disclaimer that its views do not necessarily reflect those of the government.
Telecommunications minister Pablo Vigil has threatened to take away rights to the TV and radio frequencies distributed by the Sandinista government in its last months and UNO National Assembly representatives said they would investigate the legality of the assigning process. Vigil fired frequencies director Modesto López when he defied orders not to issue a five-year license to Radio Ya. López said the station had complied with all the legal prerequisites. Vigil has not revoked the license.
The UNO press has attempted to discredit independent pro-Sandinista media. The founders of Radio Ya in particular have been accused by La Prensa of stealing valuable equipment from Radio Nicaragua. The staff at the new station deny this, saying the equipment came as a donation to the FSLN from Eastern Europe. The station still lacks basic items such as soundproofing, furniture and office supplies and relies on its listeners who bring in everything from mops to old records.
UNO's economic tactics have the greatest potential to damage the opposition media. “It appears that they are going to use the tools of the free enterprise system to try to asphyxiate the media that are not in their interests...,” said Urrutia. The independent TV programs of the state network have been slapped with gigantic price increases for their airtime. The new administration cannot shut down shows like Extravisión, but it can drive them out by raising rates beyond reach. Espinoza was paying $25 to broadcast his half hour pro-Sandinista news program, a price even he admitted was low. Now Briceño wants $750 for the 30-minute show, for a dizzying total of $18,000 a month. Given the country’s grim economic picture, unless this sum is renegotiated downward substantially, Extravisión and the other independent shows will go off the air. Espinoza proposed a progressive rate increase tagged to an improving financial situation, but negotiations stalled.
Beyond these tactics to undermine leftist voices in the media, there have been more sinister forms of harassment by rightwing forces. Espinoza and other well-known Sandinista media personalities have received death threats and someone put a rock through Espinoza’s car window in the middle of the night. The murder of several Sandinista activists around the country indicates that these are not idle threats.
Despite the rightwing offensive, Sandinista resistance on the media battlefield has been tough and not limited to media workers themselves. Workers grouped in the National Workers' Federation (FNT) recently demonstrated their support for continued independent access to the media, making Extravisión's continued survival a major demand in negotiations with the government. Though the issue has not been resolved, it is a tribute to their strength that as of the end of June the show was still on the air. Said Lily Soto, head of the journalists' union, “The former government gave people the chance to think and to express themselves...That right will be the last one to be taken away.”