Needed Reflections on the New Government’s Communication Policy
What state publicity policy does the new government have in mind? For that matter, what were previous governments’ policies? Why might new communications czar Rosario Murillo
be at risk of seeing her decisions boomerang?
What is our media’s greatest ignored wealth?
And what’s life like for journalists and the media?
The government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has a golden opportunity in the communications field, as it does in so many other areas, to lay the groundwork for our country’s first-ever state communication policy. It can simply impose its own vision on the rest of us, or it can hammer one out with the communicators, people who work in the area of social information. In the latter case, the media owners would simply be one more voice, as their interests don’t need to be determinant in a participatory process.
A very unequally divided publicity pieDaniel Ortega’s decision to centralize in the presidency the publicity of all ministries and institutions that answer to the executive branch—a total budget of nearly US$5 million—shook the media’s business sector. Some media owners immediately accused the President of wanting to impose censorship through publicity blackmail, while radio news chiefs warned that this measure would lead to their programs’ closure. The rightwing political parties denounced the new government’s alleged totalitarian vocation and powerful business interests in general confessed their consternation.
But has any Nicaraguan government not used state publicity to reward and punish? Has state publicity ever been distributed democratically? Do businesspeople place their ads according to “professional, apolitical and unconditioned criteria”? Not in my experience. No government has ever had a communication policy that did not favor the media and journalists that applaud its measures. And the same goes for businesses, independent of their political stripe. In case anyone disagrees, let’s look at the current situation of our media and its communicators and explore some precedents.
Data from the publicity auditing firm MediaGurú recently cited in the digital news daily El Financiero showed that in 2006 six Nicaraguan media organizations hogged nearly 78% of the state-generated publicity: television’s Channel 2 received $1.14 million; the newspaper La Prensa, $790,000; Channel 10, $730,000; Channel 12, $720,000; the newspaper El Nuevo Diario, $650,000; and Channel 8, $620,000. The remaining $1.33 million got parceled out among the country’s 40-odd other TV channels, 200 radio stations, and plethora of weeklies, monthly magazines, journals and other print media. Of the state’s spending on publicity, 58.4% went to television, 25.5% to print newspapers and 16.1% to radio and other media. According to the 2005 population census, 91 of every 100 households have a radio while only 59 have a television, with radio the only source of information for most of the rural population. As all this makes clear, the distribution is unequal at best.
The media inventoryThe country has two national newspapers, with an average daily circulation of some 80,000 copies between them. There is also a local daily in Managua, 5 open TV channels, 3 UHF channels, over 40 local channels distributed by cable, two subscription bulletins, 160 FM radio stations and 30-plus AM stations. The list is completed by two weekly newspapers and around a dozen monthly magazines whose print runs range between 500 and 2,000 copies.
If we analyze the political trends, FSLN supporters have scant influence in television and the written media. In contrast, pro-Sandinista radio stations are the most influential and listened-to, but are not numerically the majority, since no more than 15% are Sandinista-owned, be it by collectives or individual entrepreneurs.
A state measure toThe Sandinista government of the eighties was no exception to the favoritism rule, although the dominant cause was unique to that period. With the imposition of official censorship as a reaction to the Reagan administration’s low-intensity war, dozens of radio news programs managed by veteran journalists disappeared, either because they could not broadcast information that might affect the national policy of defense against the aggression, or because they received no state or private publicity revenues. Most of these journalists opted for exile or accepted salaried posts in official media. Only five got authorization to reopen their stations, under moderate political control and with partial state financing.
wipe out the Sandinista media
Since the FSLN lost power, the Sandinista media’s influence has been a burr under the saddle of the Nicaraguan Right’s most backward sectors. In the 1996 elections, for example, Daniel Ortega and outgoing Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán led the pack of some two dozen presidential candidates by several lengths. All the media had openly picked sides, with almost all television channels favoring Alemán, the candidate of the rejuvenated Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), and La Prensa heading the fierce anti-Sandinista campaign. The Sandinistas were fighting back from dozens of radio stations throughout the country, as well as Channel 4 news and El Nuevo Diario.
The previous six years had witnessed intense street battles during strikes by public employees, teachers, health workers, students, and bus and taxi drivers. Each time there was some activity, the media similarly divided into two bands: one in total support and the other insistently opposed. In fact, each media organization resembled a propaganda organ for its chosen side. The government had won some of those battles, defeating the teachers, for example; but in others the organized workers had achieved their demands, as in the case of the transport sector. The Sandinista radio stations played a fundamental role in each of these memorable grassroots struggles, which did not escape the notice of the Right, causing it profound irritation.
One of the Right’s main media figures at the time was journalist-businessman Carlos Briceño, who used his TV program “Because Nicaragua matters to us” to issue an edict: business leaders and “democratic” parties had to understand that the Sandinistas had survived because they had media—particularly radio stations—so a good way to do them in would be to eliminate their media. From his tribune, Briceño called on businesses not to place their ads in any media linked to the Sandinistas.
In January 1997, after incoming President Alemán appointed Briceño as his communications secretary, the latter immediately took steps to turn his brilliant idea for getting rid of the Sandinistas into reality. With the stroke of a pen, he cut all state publicity to any media that were either FSLN-owned or suspected of being pro-Sandinista. The government turned the publicity of the state institutions over to only five publicity agencies, all of which were close to the Liberals, which then distributed the spots among the pro-Liberal media. It was done without public bidding and was highly criticized, because it affected freedom of expression (without state ads, many radio news programs began to fold) and because the media linked to the Liberals are not precisely what the population reads, listens to or watches most.
Firings, closings, bankruptcies, sales…Briceño’s communication-deprivation policy proved futile. The openly Sandinista media had already managed to survive since 1990 without government publicity. In the case of La Primerísima radio station, the government of Violeta Chamorro and her son-in-law Antonio Lacayo had expressly ordered that we not be granted a single publicity spot. And I know for a fact that Lacayo did the same with almost all Sandinista radio stations around the country, and with the FSLN newspaper Barricada after November 1994, when Tomás Borge started running it.
In September 1997, eight months into Briceño’s watch, journalist Adolfo Pastrán Arancibia wrote a report titled “The press situation in Nicaragua,” in which he offered this summary: “The new government fired all journalists who worked as spokespeople in public dependencies, suspended state publicity for media that did not agree with the government and centralized it in three agencies close to the President. Channel 6 television was also closed under the pretext of bankruptcy, because most of its workers were FSLN sympathizers, sending 150 people into unemployment with no compensation whatever.”
He also wrote that Alemán’s administration “recently ordered the definitive closure of the Presidency’s Social Communication Department and the laying off of its 60 workers. The presidential spokesperson is Carlos Briceño, owner of Channel 8 television, who influences the ministries to contract publicity with his business. The restrictions on publicity in other media have triggered the closure of 20 of the 65 news radio programs, while a television news program close to the FSLN reduced its personnel by half due to the lack of state announcements.
“Furthermore, the Ministry of Finances is investigating the financial and accounting status of all stations that do not openly support the Liberal government’s policies. In May, the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), which is close to the government, invited its business affiliates to suspend all ads in media considered ‘leftist’ and support the ‘democratic’ media. Meanwhile, Radio Corporación, which is identified with the government and whose owners are self-declared ‘hard-line Right,’ is calling on business owners to ‘show their patriotism’ by placing their ads only in pro-government media. The lack of state publicity has led some radio owners to negotiate the sale of their station to old Somoza collaborators, who are returning from the United States to buy up the stations that are going under.”
How to get hung by your own noosePastrán cites as evidence a COSEP communiqué of May 1997 that embraced Briceño’s philosophy, and a letter it circulated to all its members asking them not to place any ads for their businesses in the ‘leftist’ media. In this regrettable letter, COSEP wrote: “Businessman: do not let your tolerance or that of your publicity agency make you an accomplice of the Left, or an artifice of your own destruction. It you give them enough rope, they will hang you.” The main person behind that pamphlet was Reynaldo Hernández, who was president of the Nicaraguan Development Institute at the time.
Briceño lasted less than a year in his post, and immediately fell victim to his own policy. No sooner had he begun to criticize the government of his former friend on his TV channel than he felt the lash of various instruments President Alemán applied to harass opponents, ranging from “tax blackmail” to the total cut-off of government publicity.
Money is the most powerful censorThe country’s big businesses are specialists at choosing the media they want to boycott. They know how and why to apply the carrot or the stick. Three years ago, for example, thousands of sugarcane workers charged that the water at the San Antonio Sugar Refinery—owned by the Pellas family, the wealthiest in the country—had been contaminated by the pesticides used in their extensive cane fields. As a result, hundreds of families are now suffering serious kidney ailments.
Giorgio Trucchi, a human rights activist who has lived in Nicaragua for many years, wrote that “according to the cane workers, the refinery’s rivers and water table have been irreversibly contaminated and this has caused a genuine epidemic of Chronic Renal Insufficiency, resulting in the death of 1,383 people [as of February 2006], with an average 46 deaths a month. There are now thousands more affected, who were fired by the company or rejected when applying to work in the harvest.”
In 2004 and 2005, hundreds of dispossessed cane workers walked the 135 kilometers to Managua from Chinandega, home of the San Antonio operations, and set up camp in front of the National Assembly in makeshift black plastic tents. There was no need to travel to Chinandega to find out what they were protesting about; any parliamentary journalist could walk a couple of hundred meters and talk to any one of them. None did. The big media organizations preferred either to ignore the issue altogether or to manipulate the information, playing up the version pedaled by the Pellas spokespeople. None of the major media owners had any desire to risk the juicy ad contracts from the long list of Pellas group businesses or distributorships: Flor de Caña rum, Toyota, Credomatic, Victoria beer, IBM and the Central America Bank, to name just a few. The owners of radio news programs were similarly unwilling to challenge the boss of bosses.
A much more recent event was the marriage of the Pellas emporium chief’s oldest daughter this February 17. Her father threw a wedding party of pharaonic proportions for the couple, splashing out a reported million dollars to rent an entire Managua hotel for 15 days, hire international artists, import flowers from Colombia and Costa Rica and bring in planeloads of merchandise from Miami for the occasion. Not one media organization dared criticize such immorality in the most impoverished country on the continent.
The self-censorship of the media businessesThe media businesses are themselves hotbeds of injustice. Unions are prohibited in nearly all of them, and the salary policy is based on reward and punishment—according more to ideological and personal loyalty to the owner or immediate boss than to the quality of the communicators or the information they work so hard to get. Every day, media bosses redline some news item that would harm the interests of one of their clients, even if it’s about nothing more damning than a traffic accident.
Throughout these years of so-called democracy, the same media bosses have successfully lobbied the National Assembly not to approve a minimum wage law for journalists. They also vetoed the most important article in the Journalists’ College Law, which would have obliged all media organizations to hire only journalists with a university degree or at least five years’ experience and who were accredited by the College.
Important shifts in media ownershipWe’re accustomed in Nicaragua to identifying the media by their political leanings and, at times, their ideological option. But since the mid-nineties the country has been undergoing a silent change in media ownership that has ended up mortgaging the information and editorial policy of powerful newspapers such as La Prensa or television channels such as 2 and 10, to cite just a couple of examples. With these media now selling themselves to the highest bidder, political and ideological factors are invariably subordinated to the interests of their owners or their owners’ partners in other businesses.
The best example is the case of the Negotiable Investment Certificates (CENIs), issued by the Central Bank to cover the fraud-triggered collapse of several banks in 2000, which now accounts for the bulk of the country’s choking domestic debt. Ever since these illicit bonds started maturing, their payment has been given priority over social spending in the national budget. When in an extraordinary investigation El Nuevo Diario began revealing how bankers had swindled taxpayers out of enormous sums of money, La Prensa preferred first to sweep it all under the rug, and then, when silence was no longer appropriate, to grossly manipulate the information. Why did it not apply the demonstrated investigative skills of its own journalists? Because two of La Prensa’s directors are also investors in two of the banks that bought up the CENIs.
Radio is our greatest media wealth,Nicaragua’s leadership class is so provincial that politicians, business owners or even grandiloquent political analysts love seeing themselves on television or at the very least in a newspaper photo, no matter how few viewers or readers the particular channel or paper can claim or whether their message was successfully transmitted. No press conference begins if the TV cameras haven’t showed up, or at least a few photographers.
but is undervalued and relegated
This is a major reason why radio is seldom included in publicity budgets and is undervalued by most politicians and businesspeople and nearly all public officials. No one wants or feels a need for radio journalists, and if one of them actually gets a requested interview or is hired to do a government institution’s publicity services, it’s merely as a favor to a friend.
Yet at the risk of making what could sound like a biased claim, facts demonstrate that radio is the most influential medium and offers the greatest coverage among the rural and urban populations. It is also the most diverse: in addition to musical entertainment, one can find stations whose commentaries range from Christian fundamentalism to convinced atheism. News programs run from ambulance chasing to analytical forums with the broadest possible gamut of political options. One can listen to community radio produced by amateurs or commercial stations with polished canned programming from abroad. That diversity is Nicaragua’s greatest media wealth.
In the land of unemployment,Some national journalism sectors and media companies have put their mission of informing on the back burner, focusing all their energies on obtaining resources—in some cases just to survive and in others to increase their already adequate revenues. Paid information is no longer an exception or a cause for embarrassment. There is no shortage of journalists of whatever specialty who will sell a publicity slot for just under $50—or a case of rum—and will cover any hearing or interview involving public officials or even businesspeople willing to pay for their services, which include not questioning their statements or actions.
selling one’s soul is a career move
The calamitous situation in which journalists find themselves today lends itself to an abandonment of ethical standards. Open unemployment is at about 30%, underemployment—such as working in exchange for an ad or other announcement—at around 34%, and the average monthly salary for those with a full-time job is equivalent to US$350. Many journalists have no social security or labor rights and very few have access to training to upgrade their knowledge and skills. All this has kicked the stuffing out of journalists’ love of their trade.
Improving the working conditions of national journalism depends on neither the government nor the businesses, but on journalists themselves. The government isn’t responsible for changing the mentality of the policies business owners employ to acquire publicity services, although it could offer a good example in the areas where it is involved.
To the good fortune of the media businesses, most communicators have no interest in organizing or are afraid to do so. The new generations are riddled with indifference, cautious not to annoy the boss and disillusioned by union leaders exploiting their posts for political favors and personal enrichment. Among the veterans, the main obstacle is self-adoration; we all consider ourselves the only real choice as president of each guild.
Promoting and protecting diversityThe government obviously has the right to decide whether to place publicity and public service announcements, and, if so, where. But my view is that, beyond political or institutional necessities whether legitimate or not, the cornerstone of the government’s communication policy must be to protect diversity in both the ownership structure and identity of the different media organizations. It’s the best way to guarantee the universal exercise of freedom of expression.
would be good state policy
This essential criterion would inevitably invert the allocation of state publicity applied up to now. For example, it would no longer be possible to favor the media in Managua over those of the departments; daily newspapers at the cost of radio; or national TV at the expense of local channels.
Another equally relevant factor is favoring media with a unique personality, ownership system or geographical sphere. If we’re talking about radio, this would mean ensuring publicity slots for the Mulukukú women’s radio station, the Miskitu station in Bilwi or that of the cooperatives in Jalapa. Or perhaps children’s radio, even if it’s in Managua, a weekly newspaper in Matagalpa, a local TV channel in Nueva Guinea, or a news program on a religious station. In all cases, the objective should be to ensure they survive, thrive and continue to provide a service to their communities.
The above could provide some answers to “what” should be done in a governmental publicity policy. The ‘how’ would be equally relevant. It remains to be seen how sensitive the government will be to hearing opinions and whether it will know how to incorporate the most valid ones into its plan.
Rosario Murillo issues a call toOn March 1, international journalists’ day, some of the “whats” were incorporated into a hastily drafted agreement signed by Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo with the recently-elected leaders of the Journalists’ College, who assumed the functions corresponding to the journalists’ unions and professional guilds, perhaps because the government’s offer caught them unawares.
“leave selfishness behind”
Among other points, the government agreed to a “fairer distribution of state publicity for the small and medium radio, print, television and electronic media on the national level.” The problem is who will determine the parameters of what is “just” and under which criteria.
Other agreements include providing six hours of radio time a day on the official state station for the independent programs of College affiliates; creating a social fund of just over $160,000 to help destitute journalists, using the public money administrated by the FSLN parliamentary bench; “promoting public policies that generate benefits and labor stability for journalists,” although there is no mention of how; creating direct links between journalists and the government to energize communications between both parties; and holding a monthly meeting to discuss matters affecting the journalist trade, which would involve the Journalists’ College and Rosario Murillo’s Council on Communication and Citizenry.
Perhaps the most important point was to “discover and discuss the government’s official Communication Policy.” But what does this mean, exactly? In a government that boasts of fostering citizen participation and direct democracy, is our role as journalists only to “discover and discuss” the government’s communications-related decisions and then implement what the country’s leaders have conjured up and decided? There are no arenas in which the profession can debate, propose, substitute, contribute or suggest corrections to the government proposals. It’s as if we were public employees, or subjects. The kindest thing that can be said is that it is surprising that the directors of the Journalists’ College signed such nonsense.
State propaganda isn’t the Murillo has also said that “knowing the media’s attitude toward our Project [and she made no exception], we’re going to maintain a communication policy similar to the one we have employed in recent months.” That policy has consisted of speaking only when the government is interested in doing so. She also announced that “we’re going to use our media to get our information out uncontaminated, direct, like we did during the campaign.”
same as an information policy
Those decisions could easily boomerang. Prejudice is a bad adviser. There is an enormous difference between information—an inescapable obligation of all public officials—and plain propaganda. Murillo seems very clear on how to make propaganda, and may be very successful doing so. But that has nothing to do with a government’s information policy.
Two examples will suffice. First: President Ortega has announced that his government’s basic political profile is “direct democracy.” Nearly two months after taking office, no official has yet been able to explain what that means and how it’s supposed to be implemented. People are still in the dark. How is a “direct democracy” in which the “people are the President” supposed to be constructed if only Ortega knows what it is? What’s the crime or manipulation or bad attitude feared from journalists who have a legitimate right—and duty—to demand an explanation?
Second: in his first 72 hours as President, Ortega signed agreements that he himself defined as fundamental to the country’s development—bilateral ones with Venezuela and Iran and multilateral ones incorporating Nicaragua into the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA). If these agreements are so important, and they most certainly are, why didn’t he have them published in the media? Does the citizenry not have the right to know? The government has a duty to publicize this information, whether via the mass media, flyers or even trucks with loudspeakers, whatever instrument the President prefers. And if the President genuinely wants the public to know about and embrace these agreements, disseminating them is a political necessity.
The media are obviously not the only form of communication nor are journalists the only instrument through which the government can transmit its messages. But while we may not be indispensable, we are necessary for society’s democratic functioning in the very broadest sense. The media are there to communicate, listen, inform, critique, inquire, investigate and, when needed, denounce. And they also help govern. Like it or not, these are the functions of communicators. Propaganda is something else.
Conceptions spawned by arroganceAnother very common error among the new government officials—and those of all previous governments—is to confuse journalists with the media, reporters with the media owners. Or to assume that all journalists are slaves of their bosses, or that communicators are ignorant by definition or at best useful fools. Or to consider any question as rude if it doesn’t fall within official priorities. Or to perceive each journalistic commentary or criterion as masking an unwholesome intention or interest in defending an ideological or political option that differs from the official line. Or to believe that the only good journalist is one who asks what the government wants or simply pins the microphone on the politician to rattle of his or her spiel uninterrupted. Or to view the media as simply loudspeakers, regurgitators or transmitters of acts, speeches and communiqués. At bottom, all these conceptions are the fruit of arrogance.
The new government has said it’s working for the poorest of the poor; that it has a vocation to serve; that it wants to foster civic participation and develop the country; that it wants “reconciliation and peace.” None of this is possible without people, and one of the most expeditious ways people have to express themselves is through the media.
Many international examples demonstrate how a government can do its work without the majority backing of the media or journalists, but Nicaraguan history has also shown that this government is going to have a hard time if it acts in spite of or against the majority of the media. If it really wants to reach the social majority it failed to win over in the elections, the government must seriously reflect on this.
William Grigsby Vado is a journalist and director of the leftist radio station La Primerísima.