Media: TV Tales
In less than three months of government, Violeta Chamorro's administration has already illegally closed a media outlet. “Extravisión,” a contracted Sandinista news program shown on state TV's Channel 6, was closed by the UNO government from July 9 to 24. Meanwhile, workers at the station face ongoing harassment from a new administration eager to replace them with pro-UNO employees.
This is free expression? The closing of Extravisión had no legal basis given that the media law passed by the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly was abolished by the same Assembly after the Sandinistas’ election loss. There is currently no law restricting or regulating media and therefore no legal way for the UNO government to cancel a news program. Even under the previous media law (severely criticized by UNO politicians), no media outlet could be closed for more than three days.
Danilo Lacayo, President Chamorro's press secretary, did, however, do just that. Striking television workers who had taken over the state TV stations decided to play Extravisión’s Monday, July 9 news program on Tuesday morning (it had not been played Monday night because the station was off the air altogether). The program focused on street interviews with strike supporters and opponents and their desires for a peaceful resolution to the strike.
Soon after the piece was broadcast, Danilo Lacayo sent a letter to Extravisión producer Manuel Espinoza informing him that the news program was indefinitely suspended. He cited the unscheduled showing of Monday's program and claimed that it “attempts to disturb public order.” Espinoza immediately responded that while he produces the program, it was the striking workers who decided to play it on Tuesday, not he. He also claimed that the program in question did not encourage violence or go against the public order. He told Barricada, “We have the honorable destinction of being the first news media to be closed by this government, which said it would respect unrestricted freedom of the press.”
The announcement of Extravisión’s suspension came after all television broadcasting had come to a halt because of clashes between striking television workers and managers of the state TV network, SNTV. The workers had joined the 14-day strike led by the Sandinista National Workers' Front (see “This Month”) on Monday, July 9, taking over both Channel 6 and Channel 2. They continued normal programming, including the popular Brazilian soap operas and a modified version of the news. When government representatives approached them at 9 pm that evening to broadcast an announcement to the nation by President Chamorro, the workers agreed to do so, and did—three times in the next half hour.
At 9:30 pm, however, Vice Minister of Government Jose Pallais and press secretary Danilo Lacayo, accompanied by five police patrols, broke into the master control studio and forced the station off the air. It remained off (except for the broadcasting of Extravisión on Tuesday morning) until Thursday.
La Prensa reported that in Monday evening’s incident, Manuel Espinoza, accompanied by “internationalists,” had attempted to prevent the police from taking over the station. In fact, Espinoza arrived at the studio at 9:30 pm to drop off his nightly videocassette as usual. Did the takeover of the station by Lacayo and Pallais just happen to occur at the same time?
According to a representative from the FNT-affiliated union at SNTV, neighborhood residents came out to support the workers when they realized the police were trying to take over the station. Faced with a massive neighborhood protest, Pallais chose to give the station back to the workers, though it did not go on the air again that night. After Tuesday's showing of Extravisión, the station went silent; workers say power to the transmitter was cut.
When the strike was resolved at a national level, workers at SNTV formed bipartite commissions of administrators and workers. The commissions turned over and received each office of SNTV, so that both sides would agree that the station was returned to the administration in the same condition in which it had been found.
Strike ends, censorship stays The suspension of Extravisión, however, continued for nearly two more weeks, despite the fact that Espinoza had prepaid the month of July at more than $500 nightly. Espinoza sought all possible legal channels to reopen his news program, and finally on July 17 was told by Danilo Lacayo that he could broadcast again on Monday, July 23. Lacayo gave no reason for either the suspension or its lifting.
Lacayo also did not mention a new detail: SNTV director Carlos Briceño had decided Espinoza had to deliver his video by 8:30 pm for the 9:30 broadcast instead of just before 9:30, as previously stipulated. So on Monday, when Espinoza arrived at SNTV with the tape, he was told he was too late. Viewers were treated to a half hour of music videos.
Once again Espinoza protested, and by Tuesday afternoon had reached agreement that the contracted deadline of just before 9:30 would remain in effect. Extravisión was finally aired during its regular slot on Tuesday, July 24.
This is not the first time the government has harassed the Sandinista news program in its three short months of existence. During the World Cup Soccer Championships, games were broadcast both in the afternoon and from 9:30-12 midnight, bumping Extravisión to a 12-12,30 am time slot. When the World Cup ended, Channel 6 began to broadcast music videos for up to half an hour between regularly scheduled evening programs, again pushing Extravisión to a later time slot. Espinoza protested the harassment and, while lessened, it has not ceased. The second night after its return to the airwaves, Extravisión was not shown until 10:30 pm.
TV Workers Under the GunAfter the strike, SNTV workers, too, experienced reprisals. Despite the government-FNT accord protecting strikers, four workers were fired. Two were section chiefs vulnerable under the Civil Service Law's broad definition of jobs requiring confidentiality and, therefore, subject to replacement. The other two did not have management responsibility. One was fired for accidentally running an old title that said “Sistema Sandinista de Television.”
In the news department, reporters hired by the previous administration were sent on mandatory vacation, often without a paycheck, or simply not given assignments. The phone was removed from the newsroom, making reporting difficult. Production workers remained idle since nearly all local programming had been cut from the schedule.
Briceño refused to pay the 43% wage increase negotiated by the FNT. Supervisors were hired to search for any possible misstep and workers were asked to account for checks issued to them a year ago, even though they had previously presented receipts.
The union demanded a meeting with Briceño. When it produced no results, they scheduled an assembly on July 31 and invited him to come explain why he would not sign an accord. This strategy finally produced an agreement.
Briceño agreed to grant a 30% wage increase and rehire the worker who had run the erroneous title. Two new locally produced shows will give work to production crews with the possibility of more children's programming if it proves marketable. Most important, management agreed not to carry out massive layoffs and to base any “restructuring” strictly on Civil Service Law criteria for jobs requiring confidentiality.
Union leaders recognize they will need to remain alert to ensure that management not interpret the criteria too broadly. Already Briceño tried to fire the woman who cleans his office, but union pressure was able to overturn the decision.
TV union leader Nelson Palacios says times have changed for his organization. Before, workers met weekly with administration; now they have no channels for participating in decision-making at all. His work as a union activist is also much more demanding. “The union before was primarily administrative,” he said. “There was a certain apathy. Now everyone comes to the union for help.”