The Closings Of La Prensa
The newspaper “La Prensa”, the most popular in the country, has been suspended five times by the revolutionary government. What’s happening?
Commentaries on Nicaragua in the exterior continue to refer to government closings of La Prensa as a symbol of repression and totalitarianism. Press coverage on the closings of La Prensa has left many with the impression that La Prensa is constantly being closed, that it is strictly limited in what it can publish, or that it has been closed indefinitely. La Prensa has been closed five times, once for 78 hours and four times for 48 hours for violations of the law. What follows is a brief packet of information regarding the closures of La Prensa. Included is 1) a summary of the law governing communications media and a translation of relevant passages, 2) a brief presentation of the articles at issue in each of the closings, and 3) a listing of headlines of the main stories published by La Prensa in one week.
The Law Governing Communications MediaNicaragua’s law governing communications media guarantees freedom of the press within certain limits based on social responsibility as defined by the law. The law went into effect on September 13, 1979, and was signed by the then members of the Government Junta: Violeta B. de Chamorro, Sergio Ramírez, Alfonso Robelo, Moises Hassan and Daniel Ortega.
The law recognizes both the right of individual or groups to publish and disseminate news, ideas and opinions and the right of a people to be informed. It is the responsibility of the government to guarantee that the right to inform and to be informed is not limited to any one social group based on its economic power.
The law also stipulates that criticism should be of a constructive character based on verifiable data and should display a concern for the reconstruction process and the problems of the Nicaragua people. A series of prohibitions are outlined, which range in specificity from a prohibition on advertisements for alcoholic beverages or cigarettes to a prohibition on publishing articles that attack Nicaraguan nationality, its language, culture and values.
In April 1981, amendments were added to the bill which prohibited the publishing and disseminating of news which attacks the internal security of the country or its national defense, or which attacks the economic stability of the nation and its inhabitants.
The Communications Department of the Ministry of the Interior is responsible for the law’s implementation. There is no censorship prior to publication. Once an article has been published, the Communications Department may judge whether or not it violates the law. The director of the Communications Department has the authority to close a newspaper when it is judged that the paper has violated the law.
On September 9, 1981, the National State of Economic and Social Emergency was announced. Under the State of Emergency, it is prohibited to disseminate false information that tends to provoke alterations in prices, salary provisions and currency.
Both the State of Emergency restriction and the law governing communications media fall within the principles established by the United Nations with respect to freedom of expression. In both the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.N. International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the right to freedom of expression is accompanied by duties to the community which, in certain instances, may limit that right. People may be subject to limitations established by the law when the purpose of that law is to ensure national security, the public and moral order and the well-being of a democratic society. (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 29; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 18, 19, 20).
The Five Closings of La PrensaLa Prensa was closed on July 10, July 29, August 19, September 27 and October 1. the following is a series of brief descriptions which we hope will give an idea of the kind of situations which have provoked the closings.
July 10: The July 10th closing was in response to the following: 1) an article claiming that a government measure ordering radio stations to move their transmitters outside the city limit had been applied exclusively against the opposition radio station, Mi Preferida. (The radio station had been closed during Somoza’s time. Money had been raised to reopen it. Because of the ordinance that all transmitters be outside the city limits, it has not, as yet, reopened). 2) an article claiming that Radio Amor, a sister station of Radio Mi Preferida, had been prohibited from speaking about that station. (The prohibition was, however, against repeating the false information about the case of the transmitters.) 3) an article claiming that a government functionary had harassed independent journalist, and 4) an editorial denouncing a supposed wave of attacks against religious billboards. In an accompanying photo, a dismayed-looking nun was seen picking up a religious billboard that had been knocked down. The nun later explained that she had taken down the billboard in order to repaint it and had asked employees of the nearby radio station to help her out.
La Prensa was charged with publishing false information with an intent to harm the popular interests and of publishing criticisms of government functionaries that could not be substantiated, thereby violating article 1, clause c; article 2, clause a and b; and article 3, clause k.
July 29: La Prensa published an article entitled “Nicaragua Absent in Wedding”. The article made a series of conjectures concerning what Nicaragua might give to Prince Charles and Princess Diana and closed by saying that the newlyweds might “be entertained by a gift of the collected works of Carlos Fonseca”. La Prensa was accused of publishing an article that ridiculed Carlos Fonseca, martyr and Father of the revolution, thereby violating article 3, clause g.
August 19: The August closing was based on an article entitled “Archbishops Obando of Managua is the principal promoter of the counter-revolution, says D’Escoto”. The article attributes a series of statements to D’Escoto with respect to the Archbishop, Violeta B. de Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo. The article was based on a supposed interview that D’Escoto gave to a Mexican journalist six months previously in New Delhi.
Prior to publication, the Government Junta spoke with La Prensa’s director, informing him that D’Escoto had denied the story. D’Escoto also spoke with La Prensa, denying that he had given the interview. La Prensa proceeded to interview Violeta B. Chamorro, Alfonso Robelo and the Archbishop Obando y Bravo, without informing them that D’Escoto had denied the story. The next day La Prensa published on the front page the interview with D’Escoto and criticisms of his statements by Chamorro, Robelo and the Archbishop. La Prensa was charged with violating article I, clause b and c, and article 2, clause a and b, of the law governing communications media.
September 27: The September 27 closing was based on a front-page story entitled “Interview with Successful Industrialist who is Packing his Bags”. The interview was with Alberto Mantilla, president of Lamsa Laboratories. An independent audit had shown that Mantilla had committed fraud and income tax invasion. While his case was under investigation and he was in Costa Rica, the employees of the laboratory took over the factory.
In the interview, the charges against Mantilla were not mentioned. Rather, Mantilla made a series of claims such as “Private property is an illusion in Nicaragua… The Vice-minister of Industry was out to get me… The climate for confiscation now exists in the government…” The Communications Department of the Ministry of Interior demanded that La Prensa present proof backing up these claims within 8 hours. La Prensa responded that the only proof was the interview itself and that these were the sentiments of a disgruntled businessman. La Prensa was charged with violating article 1, clause c; article 2, clause a and b; and article 3, clause e and l, of the communications media law.
October 1: On October 1st, the Communications Media department ordered the closing of La Prensa, based on a follow-up article which defended Mantilla and La Prensa’s right to publish the interview. La Prensa was charged with continuing to act as an apologist for businessmen who are seriously attacking the Nicaraguan economy, and of violating article 1, clause c, and article 2, clause a and b.
Reading a brief account of the five closings of La Prensa is like entering into the middle of a heated argument where it is hard to decipher what is at stake. In the case of the D’Escoto interview and the religious billboard, La Prensa was charged with inventing incidents in order to provoke disputes. The articles regarding businessman Alberto Mantilla and radio station Mi Preferida were based on real conflicts, yet rather than present the facts and legal basis of the disputes, La Prensa printed a series of broad claims against the government.
The closings are in response to articles dealing with the “independent press”, the private sector and the religious hierarchy. The government has made considerable efforts to show that the revolution need not be in conflict with any of these groups. The government claims that La Prensa is manipulating information, publishing false news and employing a number of psychological techniques in order to create conflicts, confuse the Nicaraguan people, and destabilize the government. Both the content and arrangement of articles and photos are planned so as to accomplish a series of objectives. Among these are: 1) to create a sense of crisis, 2) to present government programs as a threat to private property, the family and religion, 3) to create rifts between the government and the religious hierarchy and private sector, 4) to place the revolution in opposition to the deep religiosity of the Nicaragua people, and 5) to present the Sandinistas as a repressive military apparatus and the opposition as a democratic civilian force. La Prensa claims that they are merely giving voice to legitimate opposition within Nicaraguan society.
The following is a list of the three major headlines of La Prensa during a six day period. (This period was chosen for its ordinary rather than extraordinary character).
Jan. 3.--First Peace, then Real Unity
--Armed Party is a Fact, Clement Guido Contends
--Astrologer Predicts: 1982 will be a year of Great
Jan 4.--Food More Expensive for Poles
--Those Laid-off in Telcor Looking for Reinstatement, Solicit Advice From CTN
--Cases of La Perfecta and La Prego without Verdict,
Going On Half year.
Jan 5.--Great Civil March the 10th in Memory of Pedro Joaquín
Chamorro Cardenal and Luis Medrano.
--Coordinating Committee Decides Today: Will the
Discussion Continue on the Law Governing Parties?
Jan 6.--Democratic March Ready, Department Delegates will Come
--Congresspersons Worried Over Loss of Sympathy,
Personal Opinion of Robelo.
--Apolitical Army in Coordinating Committee Proposal.
Jan 7.--Triple Alliance in March.*
--The Indefensible in the Revolution, 3 Congresspersons
Analyze, Looking for Agreement
--Announce the Deaths of 15 Contras.
* CUS, CTN and CONAPRO form the “Triple Alliance” and are groups associated with the opposition.
Jan. 8--Strange Expropriations in the Gaceta
--Central America under the Magnifying Glass, Three
Congresspersons in Deep Analysis.
--Nicaragua Doesn’t Accept a Totalitarian Regime:
Monsignor Obando in United States.
Of these major news stories, all but three express or rally opposition to the government. The articles cover only four actual events in Nicaragua: the march of the opposition groups on the anniversary of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro’s death, the position of the Democratic Coordinating Committee with respect to the Law Governing Political Parties, the arrival of three congresspersons, and the death of 15 Somocista guards in combat with Sandinista troops. More front-page space is devoted to the ideological struggle than to reporting on events in the country. To varying degrees, this is true of all three newspapers. In addition, at least two of the events covered are designed to play a part in the whole ideological struggle: the march and La Prensa’s interviews with the three congresspersons.
Other domestic events occurring during this same week, which were given minimum coverage or not covered at all in La Prensa, include the following: 1) Honduran Minister of the Interior called false the earlier Honduran claims that the Sandinista army had killed 200 Nicaraguan refugees in Honduras; 2) France sold non-offensive arms to Nicaragua (reported on the last page of La Prensa); 3) Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto gave a speech on Nicaragua’s foreign policy; 4) the Innovators’ Campaign brought together the various innovations that Nicaraguan workers had developed in 1981; and 5) construction workers affiliated with the Sandinista Workers Central held a large assembly where they called for meetings with the Ministry of Culture and the Government Junta to discuss the unemployment problem.
Will the Nicaraguan government close La Prensa permanently? The latest comments on La Prensa by a high-level official were those given by Comandante Tomas Borge, Minister of the Interior, on January 26. Comandante Borge spoke before approximately 200 journalists at the invitation of the National Journalists Union. Borge invited social scientists to study those techniques used by La Prensa in the manipulation and distortion of events. Borge analyzed La Prensa in the manipulation and distortion of events. Borge analyzed La Prensa over a four-day period and compared La Prensa to El Mercurio, newspaper used by the CIA in Chile to destabilize the Allende government. He called for patience with La Prensa and said this patience can only be explained in terms of the government’s desire to maintain political pluralism and a mixed economy, and to express this abroad.
Comandante Borge’s speech seemed to indicate that the government does not intend to close down La Prensa. Instead, the government will most likely continue to confront La Prensa openly, discrediting it by underlining the techniques of manipulation which it uses and the interests which it represents. At the same time, more and more groups and persons within Nicaragua are protesting the reporting of La Prensa. Some of the groups which have protested in recent weeks include: Mothers of the Heroes and Martyrs, the Nicaraguan National Journalists Union, unions affiliated with the Sandinista Workers Central, the Bishop of the Atlantic Coast and the Ecumenical Center. Their protests will continue to receive wide coverage in the media.
In the exterior, the question may arise as to whether the government is using the popular organizations to suppress its opposition, in this case, to discredit La Prensa. Government leaders and pro-government communications media have encouraged protests to La Prensa’s reporting. Yet it would be inaccurate to say either that these protests are entirely directed from above or that they are entirely spontaneous. La Prensa publishes strong political statements. Nicaraguans, and especially those participating in the popular organizations, are accustomed to organizing meetings and demonstrations, writing letters to the editor and issuing statements to express their political opinions.
According to a broad interpretation of the law, La Prensa is printing articles that are in violation of the law. The last closing of La Prensa was on October 1st. However, La Prensa has been required to print admonitions issued by the Communications Media department. As an example, on December 30 La Prensa printed a Communications Media communiqué prohibiting La Prensa from continuing to print material whose purpose is to disrupt government efforts to deal with the distribution of sugar. There have been shortages due to hoarding. The same day La Prensa printed a foreign doctor’s opinion that for good health and nutrition, the average person needs more that 4 pounds of sugar per month which the government claims is sufficient.
In this article, we have merely dealt with the closings of La Prensa. Due to the inaccurate information that continues to circulate in the exterior with respect to the closures, we felt it important to provide detailed information in this area. Yet events are developing rapidly in Nicaragua, and new questions are being posed in the area of information and freedom of the press. On February 3rd, the Nicaraguan Ministries of Defense and the Interior held a press conference giving detailed information on the development of a counter-revolutionary plot and of fighting that has taken place on the Coast since November. There have been extensive restrictions on printing news about the Atlantic Coast which have been applied to all Communications Media since early January. (See article on plots against Nicaragua). In future envíos, we will continue to examine the subject of the press in Nicaragua in a wider context.