Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 407 | Junio 2015



The local media are overshadowed and under threat

This journalist, who for the past 15 years has anchored the weekly radio program “Onda Local,” reporting in the municipalities on local people’s problems and struggles, reflects here on the limitations and obstacles currently facing Nicaraguan journalism, particularly in local and community media.

Patricia Orozco

Nicaragua isn’t Managua. The country has 153 municipalities, which share certain problems but also have their own specific ones. Many of the decisions made in Managua have no effect on the capital’s population but hit the people in other parts of the country hard.

Following the mining companies’ ravages

A very clear example of that today is the voracity of the companies doing open-pit mining. The concessions through which the government is merrily giving away our territory to the big transnational mining companies are granted in Managua, but affect the people in El Limón, Chontales and now Rancho Grande. The people of Rancho Grande have traditionally been farmers, love the land they’ve always worked and care for their environment. But they are now having to face the threat from B2Gold, a Canadian company that will extract gold from there in an open-pit mine, then take it to the Limón Mine for processing. Rancho Grande has an important civic movement that has said a clear NO to mining, leaving no confusion about the residents’ desire to continue cultivating their land. We’ve been accompanying them through our radio program “Onda Local” (Local Wave).

A resident of Santo Domingo, Chontales, recently showed up at the station to tell us the mining company had found a vein of gold running beneath the town and is prepared to displace an entire neighborhood to extract it. The company called a meeting of the people, claiming it was only to inform them of the situation. They passed a paper around that they said was only to document their attendance and asked people to sign it, but then later presented it as if the signatures were approving the mining project.

With our station’s small team of four, we’ve toured virtually all the municipalities over the 15 years our program has been on the air, always backing the efforts of people struggling to defend their rights from the social and economic decisions made in Managua. We’re on the side of the municipalities and the citizenry. And in that task, we’ve been learning what municipalism is all about and how important municipal autonomy is.

“Relative calm” in Nicaragua

In 2014 a study of the media situation in the the five Central American countries was done with support from both El Salvador’s Comunicándonos organization and the World Association of Community Radio (AMARC), which has a chapter in each of the Central American countries. The study was titled “Between censorship and discrimination: Central America under threat.” I did the chapter on Nicaragua with Julio López, another member of our team, and we decided to call it “Relative calm,” words we believe reflect what’s happening in our country today.

In the study we analyzed the laws related to journalism, identified agents that jeopardize communication work and specifically studied community communication, looking at its advances, obstacles and trends. We used a documentary methodology, analyzing previous research, relevant projects implemented in the country, legislation, publications and the like. We also did in-depth interviews with journalists, media experts and analysts, and human rights defenders. As Julio and I participated in the design of the research, we proposed from Nicaragua that they particularly speak to journalists, the men and women who do the communicating, because their voices needed to be heard. We incorporated them through a survey of 460 Central American journalists, 125 of them Nicaraguans, selected from both government-aligned and independent written, radio, TV and cyber media to achieve the most equitable selection possible. In Nicaragua’s case, the fewest were from Managua. There were 54 women and 62 men, with the remaining 9 not participating in the survey, explaining that they would be fired if they did.

There is no up-to-date census of the number of local media in Nicaragua, whether radio, TV, cable companies or written publications. AMARC Nicaragua has a total of 22 members: 18 community radio stations and 4 production centers, but that isn’t the full extent of community media in the country. Although it may seem incredible, there are no data, either in academia or in the College of Journalists, indicating how many of us are working locally in Nicaragua. We think there are probably more than 3,000, but we don’t know.

A theoretical framework
that fits Nicaragua perfectly

In the theoretical framework the study was based on we found the opinions of two experts that define and fit Nicaraguan reality very well, like a cut-to-size shirt. Omar Rincón, a Colombian communicologist who makes a living writing about communication trends in Latin America in very accessible language, says: “Governments have become media—journalist-reporters and media actors. They prefer to act, say and communicate rather than do. They’re not interested in democracy or freedom of expression or journalistic quality. What matters to them is to ensure that their version of history or of politics is the hegemonic one.”
Doesn’t that fit Nicaragua perfectly? The current government, which has extended its tentacles to all other branches of government and all state institutions, is trying to establish its versions as the only truth. The executive branch’s interest in controlling media and its decision to expel people who speak other truths express what’s happening here: it’s a soliloquy of power. The official TV channels repeat the government version as if it were the only one, imposing it as hegemonic. We hear no critiques on those media, no pointing out of any discrepancies. All day long we hear everyone repeating: “Thanks to God, thanks to the Comandante and thanks to the Compañera,” promoting a model that turns its back on any vision of rights. Nicaraguans all over the country have long struggled for the right to water and housing, and have made their own efforts to get both, sometimes achieving it. But that’s not the discourse; the only message in the official media 24/7 is that we should show gratitude to God and the governing couple and not recognize these struggles.

The other theoretical framework we used that particularly fits our reality was titled “La libertad de expresión en la jurisprudencia de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos” (Freedom of Expression in the Jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights). This text by then-IACHR president Sergio García and his senior attorney and colleague Alejandra Gonza says that “when the State does not guarantee full exercise of freedom of expression and of the press and creates hostile environments toward media and journalists, journalists are forced to choose between putting their life and often that of their family at risk, or abandoning their investigations and ceasing to report on certain issues.” Our study demonstrates that this is what’s happening in Nicaragua.

The Ortega government’s
communication strategy and practice

Soon after Daniel Ortega took office in 2007, his new communication secretary [his wife] published a communication strategy stating that all information provided by the official media would be “uncontaminated,” to use her word. In addition the announced government communication policy would include support for the local media.

What has happened since then? This government’s conception of power has led to a top-down communication style in which public information is totally centralized and secrecy prevails: the government doesn’t share public information with the public. We’re not referring here to who married whom, who came and went and who’s having an affair, but rather to information of interest to the citizenry because it affects them.

What we thus see are officials spewing dissertations and soliloquys at journalists who are then only allowed to ask questions with induced responses. This communication style even prevents journalists from the official or pro-government media from questioning government officials. Independent journalists, who might ask questions of public interest, aren’t even allowed into many of these “press conferences.”

Neither central nor local government institutions provide complete information or timely responses, as we have verified in our travels all over the country. They don’t respond, don’t inform and don’t give interviews. The only information provided in the mayor’s office web pages is the official “functions of the mayor, deputy mayor and Municipal Council.” Nothing more.
Nor have the local media been supported. As during the Chamorro, Alemán and Bolaños governments, State publicity continues to be used as a control mechanism to reward or punish media depending on whether “you’re with me or against me.” This government said it would administer and concentrate state publicity “sparingly” to avoid spending so much on publicity. What has happened is that public service announcements aren’t decided or administered by the different state institutions, but by the presidency, in just one more expression of today’s extreme centralization. While we still remember previous municipal government vaccination campaigns or messages about not throwing garbage in the streets as massive campaigns particularly directed to local radio stations, now they are only sent to a local radio station with centralized permission from the President’s spokeswoman.

Creating its own media rather
than supporting existing ones

Instead of supporting the local media as promised, the government has put together its own system of national and local media. It strengthened two national media it already controlled as a party—the Channel 4 television station and Radio Ya—and bought out TV Channels 13 and 8, both national. There was even a scandal round the latter purchase because it was done with money from Venezuelan cooperation. Both of those channels, run by children of the presidential couple, are buoyed with state publicity.

As has been repeatedly charged, the government has attempted to close down independent spaces, coopting local radio stations by buying them out, as attempted but failed in the case of Radio Camoapa, or pressuring local TV channels politically and economically. One can only wonder if the promised support to local media referred only to expanding the coverage of Radio Ya and Radio Sandino, both of them national FSLN [Sandinista National Liberation Front] stations, and granting them new local frequencies. We’ve also seen how the government has helped local radios that replicate the official discourse.

Nicaragua now has a media duopoly

In our study we defined the media duopoly existing in Nicaragua as a serious threat to freedom of expression and information. That duopoly is made up of the Ortega-Murillo family and the Mexican-born media magnate Remigio Ángel González, who owns TV channels and radio stations all over Central and Latin America either in his own name or that of family and friends. The presidential family owns channels 4, 6, 8 and 13 on the UHF band and around each channel also owns radio stations I call “jukebox radios” because they only broadcast music that makes people feel happy so they forget the country’s problems. For his part, Ángel González owns channels 7, 9, 10 and 11, where this phenomenon of four or five music radio stations around each channel is repeated. González recently bought Channel 2, reserving for the presidency all of that channel’s news policy.

Only three channels have so far survived outside of the duopoly. Channel 12 tries to talk about the country’s reality, has pluralist opinion programs and makes the effort to maintain independence from the duopoly in its news policy. Channel 14, owned by powerful economic groups, promotes a business vision and maintains a news policy with some independence from the governmental line, accentuating its critical content when the government treads on business elite interests. Last but not least, Channel 100% Noticias, maintains breadth in its news coverage but lacks a sustained critique of power and frequently reveals itself to be biased toward the government.

The media duopoly violates article 68 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the State must ensure the media are not subjected to foreign interests or the economic monopoly of some group. How has Ángel González, a foreigner, been permitted to own so many media? How has this virtual monopoly shared between two economic groups been allowed to use figureheads and fronts?

Internet is the most democratic informative space that has ever existed because in cyberspace people write, give their opinions and say whatever they want, upload and download all the videos they desire and find all the information one could possibly imagine. Access to that democratic space still isn’t available to the majority in Nicaragua, however, where Internet is more urban than rural, more for the middle and upper classes than grassroots people and more for students than other social sectors. According to data from TELCOR, the State’s telecommunications regulatory institution, only 10% of the Nicaraguan population uses the Internet, although I personally believe the proportion is probably greater. Given its democratic potential, the government is now promoting a law to regulate broadband. One positive objective in the law is that the State must regulate it so that service isn’t so costly and won’t be like the Claro corporation’s current monopoly over the fixed telephone service, participation in a duopoly over the cellphone service and dominant oligopoly participation as an Internet service provider. But the law also has a negative aspect: using the justification of regulating the service, the State is looking to control the information we send out and receive. At least that’s what AMARC and the Nicaraguan chapter of PEN have argued. Our position is YES to regulation of a public service as basic as water, light or telephony, but NO to information control. Given the top-down communication model characterizing this government, it’s enormously risky that it now wants to control the information circulating on Internet.

Has freedom of expression
deteriorated in Nicaragua?

A majority of the journalists we consulted in the study believe that freedom of expression has deteriorated in Nicaragua since Daniel Ortega retook the presidency in 2007. Only 14% disagree. On the one hand the deterioration is due to the restrictive policy centralizing public information. In the study, one of the major limitations we documented to the exercise of good journalism is the restriction of public information. It’s difficult to do good journalism without contrasting opinions. It’s not enough to interview the spokespeople of the institutions; that official opinion has to be contrasted with others. And since Nicaragua is a plural society, not a homogeneous one, many opinions need to be taken into account.

On the other hand, the private sector also has some responsibility for the deterioration of the freedom of expression as it doesn’t seem interested in investing in independent media. The discourse of big private enterprise would lead one to think it favors independent media, but it hasn’t committed to any sustained effort to ensure independent media can survive and report in depth on what’s happening in the country and what’s in the public interest.
A full 91% of the journalists consulted told us they’re facing risks in the exercise of their profession. In the study we recorded harassment campaigns against media and journalists, such as the well-known one in 2008 against CINCO [a communications research center] and the Autonomous Women’s Movement, accused of triangulating funds to launder money, in which the Public Ministry returned the equipment seized only after two years later and had to admit it had found no proof to demonstrate that accusation. Another was that of 30 journalists threatened, hit and even beaten in Managua and in León after the fraud in the 2008 municipal elections. There was also the unjustified expulsion from the country of Agence France Presse correspondent Héctor Retama and of Swedish filmmaker Peter Torbiörnsson while doing research for “Last Chapter: Goodbye Nicaragua,” his movie of what really happened in the bomb explosion at a 1984 press conference with Éden Pastora in La Penca, Nicaragua, which Torbiörnsson had attended.
Reviewing the situation of national journalism, we also found cases of exiled journalists again. We documented that of Silvia González, El Nuevo Diario correspondent in Jinotega, who was investigating the case of “Yahob,” one of those who had rearmed for political reasons, a phenomenon the government denies. Some reportedly warned González that “if you continue with that you’ll see what will happen to you and your family.” We don’t know where she is now, but she’s not in Nicaragua. Still another case we recorded is that of the husband and wife journalist team Ary Neil Pantoja and María Lidia Bermúdez. She was harassed and unfairly dismissed by Telémaco Talavera, then rector of the Agrarian University and now chief spokesperson for the interoceanic canal project. Because she stuck to her denunciation of him, she was further intimidated and threatened until the couple decided to go to the United States for the sake of their children.

A high percentage of journalists consulted said they had faced threats and intimidation at some point in their professional life, although never direct death threats. We also investigated the agents named as having intimidated, threatened or assaulted them, including central and municipal government functionaries, members of political parties—not only the FSLN—and private businesspeople, who in some cases were listed in first place.

Local journalists are
pressured from many sides

One of the study’s main interests was to investigate the situation of local and community media and local journalism. Journalists outside Managua face more direct threats, for example from economic groups. We learned that B2Gold has shelled out lots of money to various journalists in Matagalpa. When we went there a month and a half ago I confronted some of them, angrily accusing them of taking money from mining companies. They defended themselves saying they did it for “food.” We had quite a discussion in which I told them they’d have to choose between food and their dignity. Once the owner of a TV channel and radio station in Matagalpa called me and said: “I can participate in all the radio hook-ups you do in Onda Local on any issue, even defense of abortion, but not if you talk about mining… because B2Gold is supporting me.” In contrast we saw more willingness to speak critically about the mining companies among the journalists in Chontales, although they also mentioned that B2Gold had offered them money and sought to manipulate them.

Local journalists feel the pressure from economic groups much more directly than those of the national media. A while ago La Prensa correspondent Tatiana Rothschuh told us she’d liked the report Onda Local put on the web about the Rancho Grande community’s resistance to mining and told us how the six-page chronicle she wrote on that same issue had been slashed in half by her newspaper. She fought hard, but couldn’t get the rest published.

Local media, both TV and radio, are also much more directly threatened by drug-trafficking groups to keep them from publishing some news, even when it refers to police actions. Other actors who exercise direct pressure on the local media are mayors and FSLN political secretaries in the municipalities. The concerned director of one radio station told us: “I don’t know if I’m going to continue participating in the Onda Local hook-ups because the political secretary came to remind me that the station still didn’t have its legal papers…”

Journalists from local media have also suffered threats and aggression by men accused of violence against women. They or their family members, who don’t or don’t want to understand the framework of protection for women in Law 779, threaten journalists who cover the denunciation, get angry when they do follow-up interviews and have even engaged in direct physical aggression. A female journalist with Matagalpa’s Radio Vos even had her arm broken.

Almost no one speaks of such serious problems facing the local media. The major national media occasionally denounce obvious cases, but very few talk about what happens to local journalism, the local media. In addition to having to cope with the top-down style of official communication and the restricted state publicity, they also suffer all these pressures more directly.

There’s also surveillance and censorship

In addition to harassment and threats there’s also surveillance. The government keeps an eye on those of us working in communication. We recall the recent denunciation by La Prensa journalist Elizabeth Romero, who covers news on security issues. She charged that she was followed and even her mail was opened. What crime had she committed? All journalists receive and send messages, exchange information, investigate… that’s their job. Many journalists spoke to us about being spied on.

There’s even censorship. We all thought the terrible “Black Code” directed by Colonel Luna had ended forever in Nicaragua with the fall of Somoza. But it didn’t; there’s censorship in Nicaragua again today, particularly in the local media. Some 64% acknowledged there’s censorship in Nicaragua, with only 25% outright denying it.

And of course there’s self-censorship. Some journalists censor themselves about problems related to private enterprise in hopes of getting an ad from the company involved. Self-censorship also occurs on issues of drug trafficking to avoid any trouble. Local journalists recognize they have censored themselves by not talking about some issues to avoid running afoul of some actor or another who’s pressuring them.

Censorship has also taken new forms. Journalists who don’t sympathize with the government have problems trying to get into press conferences given by certain authorities and have even been thrown out of some official activities…

The censorship even includes closure

The local media haven’t escaped the most concrete form of censorship: closure. The most recent case was on May 30, when TELCOR representatives confiscated the broadcasting equipment of Radio Voz de Mujer, a station run by the Association of Women against Violence in Oyanka in the municipality of Jalapa. As it obviously resulted in the station’s immediate closure, this was direct censorship, although TELCOR’s excuse was that the station was broadcasting on an unauthorized frequently. The station’s representatives say the issue could have been resolved via negotiation, given that TELCOR knew the station’s situation and had even extended its operations permit until October.

When Nicaragua appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review both the first and second time, the government stated that there’s no media censorship in Nicaragua and that neither the diffusion nor the circulation of any information is impeded. But the very same day that the official from the Attorney General’s Office made that statement in Geneva in 2014, Canal Zona Libre TV, a small two-person TV channel trying to do critical communication, was closed in San Rafael del Sur. They had criticized a municipal project, a sports field urged by the community but made deficiently and with poor materials, so that it was already in bad shape almost immediately after being inaugurated. The local authority didn’t like the critical debate promoted by the channel so he personally marched down to the cable company to tell them: “You’re either with me or against me, so close that television channel where they’re saying bad things about me.” Many municipal authorities have no tolerance for journalism in which even the most minimal criticism is made of them.

And that wasn’t the only case. The mayor of San Carlos, department of Río San Juan, closed the program “Chat by Journalists” on Radio Voz del Trópico Húmedo in 2007, as well as “A Little of Everything” on the same station. In 2008 the Juigalpa mayor’s office closed the program “Face to face with the news,” transmitted by a local cable company. Then in 2009 TELCOR closed Radio La Ley, of Sébaco, again taking its broadcasting equipment as well.

In 2010, Channel 15 of Condega was continually threatened and finally closed by the local cable company after the mayor’s office and a para-party group demanded it pull the channel’s plug or else they would close the cable company itself. That same year the director of Radio Veca in Bilwi decided to close its “Wihta Tara” news space following threats, and in Bluefields FSLN members closed the program “Demarcation now” broadcast on Radio Bluefields Stereo, which was urging territorial demarcation of indigenous lands. In 2012 the CONCAS cable company closed Columbia Channel 13 in the municipality of Somoto due to pressure from the local FSLN political secretary. Then in 2014 came the closure of Zona Libre TV and in May of this year the mayor of Matiguás closed Channel 7 after he had been criticized on it.

We did this count in the study to help highlight the fact that there’s censorship in Nicaragua. Every year the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center’s annual report documents the human rights violations against media and journalists. Between 2008 and 2009 six radio stations stopped functioning in various departments and several independent news programs and opinion spaces were taken off the air. By 2009, ever fewer journalists were taking a critical stance toward the government and fewer businesses were willing to place ads in spaces that criticized the government’s actions. The next year the closure of some 20 radio news programs was reported.

Many of the decisions by municipal authorities to harass and even close spaces and media have either been directly inspired by the central government or made locally in a desire to please it. Either way, these decisions reflect the lack of municipal autonomy in Nicaragua. Municipal authorities no longer have any quota of autonomy to govern and are replicating the central government’s top-down control model.

Local and community
media deserve recognition

The local media are currently caught between threats and invisibility. They are considered so unimportant that they aren’t even mentioned in the General Telecommunications Law. That law only mentions the large national media, with no reference to the local media, much less to community media. Given this vacuum, AMARC has drafted a community media bill that would give juridical status to these media and has been engaging in consultation about it. But in view of all the games being played in the National Assembly, the bill hasn’t yet been presented to that legislative body, where four initiatives to reformulate, modernize or reform the Telecommunications Law are already gathering dust. It would seem the National Assembly doesn’t want to get into those issues. But even though there’s no certainty a community media law could free communicators from the pressures of the risks they face, it would be an important step toward an adequate legal framework.

The first objective of AMARC’s bill is to give the local and community media the visibility and identity their large audience merits. People in the municipalities want to see themselves on local television, and those in the communities want to hear themselves on local radio. So the first objective of this initiative is to gain explicit recognition for these important media that can contribute so much to the construction of democracy.

Common points with
the rest of the region

The study we participated in identified common points among media and journalists in the other Central American countries. The situation of journalism in Honduras is unquestionably the toughest, with journalists brazenly pursued and even killed. The murder rate for journalists there is the highest on the continent and journalism is at permanent risk as journalists try to do their work in a situation of great vulnerability. The State’s efforts to protect freedom of expression are woefully insufficient, with 29% of all the threats journalists receive coming from the Police itself. The three sectors of Honduran media—private, public and community—aren’t balanced. Not surprisingly, the public media show a clear bias toward the governing party. The concentration of media is clear evidence of a desire to control the national agenda, pushing issues that favor the few, and silence the social agenda that bares the inequities.

In Guatemala ethnic diversity stands out very strongly, which poses a concertation challenge among the diverse peoples, with the central government making no visible effort to forge communication policies that recognize the country’s ethnic plurality. According to the survey done for the study, no fewer than 48% of community journalists and media have been attacked at some moment or have been the object of censorship, while 21.7% of them have received death threats.

There are also problems with freedom of information in El Salvador given the predominant desire to regulate. New laws promote transparency and public debate, although not all their potential has yet been developed. The Legislative Assembly is currently debating two bills that could transform the current media map. Also, an important debate has been opened on democratizing the radio spectrum thanks to the mobilization of civil sectors and organizations.

Costa Rica was also included in the study at the last minute. We thought few problems would be seen but found that wasn’t quite true. For virtually a century radio in Costa Rica has been defined as “private enterprise,” full stop, and it was believed there would be nothing more to discuss, but in recent years, some have begun to pose the need for radio to be recognized as something more than a tool of private business.

Wrap-up of the study on Nicaragua

The study’s chapter on Nicaragua concludes that the ownership concentration of the media is affecting the exercise of freedom of expression and information, undermining pluralism and co-opting media and journalists; and that the central government, the police and the economic power are impeding and jeopardizing freedom of information. Freedom of expression is further affected by governmental secrecy and the centralization of information. The secrecy in affairs of public interest like the canal project or the effect of the mining projects on the environment, which could be transcendental for the entire country, constitutes a serious attack on freedom of information.
We also concluded that civil society and the citizenry in general have seen their capacity for expression and possibility of enjoying plural communication media curtailed. There’s a desire to silence society, which is reflected in the government’s communication policy, with the closure of local spaces demonstrating intolerance, assuming the negation of a balance of powers and denying the essence of journalism.

We verified a consensus among the journalists consulted that freedom of information is indeed threatened and that the ethical exercise of the journalist profession is at risk, while censorship and self-censorship persist with new twists and state publicity continues to be employed as a mechanism of reward and punishment. We also observed that the Public Information Access Law, which we celebrated as the first and best in Central America, has been thrown overboard by the government and plays no role whatever.

Finally, although no journalists have been murdered here, limitations on the exercise of freedom of expression and information are assuming new forms of repression and other attempts to silence the voice of communicators. While there have been no physical deaths, there have definitely been civil deaths in the form of silencing people. And it is in the municipalities that the civil death of many journalists is most frequent.

Rescuing freedom of expression is a challenge we all have today. We must not forget that it is a right not only of those of us who are communicators, but of all citizens. It is a cornerstone of a democratic society, the society we want.

Patricia Orozco is a Nicaraguan journalist with many years of experience.

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