The national media’s mounting frustration with the Sandinista government’s restrictive press policies recently exploded across the front page of daily El Nuevo Diario: “Journalists Humiliated,” with the subtitle,“Humiliation in Incae and monopolization by official media.”
Instead of leading the day’s news with an article about President Daniel Ortega’s meeting with business leaders at the Harvardaffiliated business school Incae, the formerly Sandinista-affiliated newspaper headed its Oct. 12 edition with a protest article about how impossible it has become to cover official government events. Not only did the Incae event start several hours behind schedule – as has become the new norm – but it was only open to the three official news media outlets, forcing all other journalists to wait outside the building in the rain and listen to the press conference via a live transmission from Sandinista radio.
“The discussion at the working tables and then the discourse by the President of the Republic ceded importance to the indignation of the journalists,” El Nuevo Diario reported in its account of the ill-planned event.
“The situation is horrible; it’s very complex,” said Roberto Collado, El Nuevo Diario’s newsroom chief. “The risk is that we (the government and the media) are becoming enemies.”
When the Sandinista Front returned to power in January, they changed not only the way government is run but the way journalism is practiced.
The new government’s communication policy, spelled out in a communiqué last February, set the stage for a new policy whereby the government relies only on its official media outlets – Multinoticias Channel 4 TV, Radio Ya and Radio Sandino – to disseminate information. The rest of the media outlets get their news from them.
“All democratic governments know that the media (radio, press and television) orient their work from a political and business perspective, different from that of a government,” said First Lady and Sandinista communications chief Rosario Murillo in a foreboding press release one month into the new government.
The press release went on to urge the media to be patriotic and positive during the new administration, which has dubbed itself “The Government of Reconciliation and National Unity.”
The media, however, aren’t feeling the love. El Nuevo Diario’s Collado says the nonofficial media initially gave the new government the benefit of the doubt, but relations soured quickly and he doesn’t think they’ll improve.
“There will continue to be a polarization (between the government and the media); I don’t see any other road,” the newsroom boss said. “The government has only been in office for nine months, but it seems much longer. They see us as enemies, as if we had a knife hidden in our notebooks.”
The Sandinistas’ media policy is based on a vertical structure with First Lady Murillo at the top.
Government offices and ministries that once carried their own press staffs, now defer to Murillo, who is generally inaccessible to the media.
“Journalism is different now because with the previous government we knew how to locate government spokesmen, but now it’s all in the hands of the First Lady and she is impossible to locate,” said Ludwin Loáisiga, political reporter for the opposition daily La Prensa. “When you call the press office, they always say they’ll call you back in five minutes, but they never do.”
Due to the situation, many journalists admit that they are forced to publish unverifiable rumors and speculations, with the now standard disclaimer: “Government sources did not respond to requests for comment by press time.”
In addition to becoming more inaccessible, the Sandinista government, in what appears to be a throwback to its days as a clandestine revolutionary movement, also keeps its agenda a secret. Journalists say they oftentimes have to monitor official radio or TV to learn of the President’s whereabouts or activities. And when the Sandinista press office does call reporters to let them know of a press conference, it is oftentimes as the event is already beginning.
The situation, Loáisiga says, forces journalists from the independent media to collaborate with reporters from the official media outlets.
“Whenever I see a journalist from Mulitnoticias, I always ask them if they know what the President is doing or where he’ll be in the next couple of days,” Loáisiga said.
Alfonso Malespin, a media professor at the University of Central America (UCA), says the situation between the media and the government is “tense” and has led to problems with news coverage.
The government, he says, has restricted access not only to information but also pinched public funding for the media. With the government’s advertising budget all but eliminated, and an edgy private sector that is reluctant to loosen its purse strings during times of uncertainty, many media outlets have already started to fire employees.
El Nuevo Diario reports that it fired 25 employees – mostly administrative personnel, but also some journalists and editors – at the end of last month, and La Prensa has already gone through two waves of layoffs this year.
The situation is equally grave in radio, where reportedly 120 of the 250 programs that existed last year have since been eliminated.
Malespin says that a group of academics and pro-democracy activists are pressuring the government to develop the norms to implement the forthcoming Law of Access to Information, which was passed earlier this year and is set to enter into force in December. But if the government does not approve the norms of implementation – or reglamentos, as they are known in Spanish – the law will have no applicable function when it enters into force, Malespin warns.
Other journalists’ complaints are Ortega’s punctuality problems and nocturnal tendencies.
Notorious for showing up late to midnight press conferences during his first term in office in the 1980s, Ortega has not grown more punctual or diurnal with age.
Press conferences called for 4 p.m. oftentimes start around 6-6:30p.m., and then include a two-hour discourse. Some press conferences go later than 10 p.m., ensuring that they won’t be in the morning papers. Eduardo Enríquez, newsroom director of La Prensa, says that late-night scheduling of events is only hurting the government’s ability to get its message out to the public.
“The number of people watching Channel 4 (Multinoticias) at 10 p.m. is around nil,” Enríquez said.
The scheduling and content of press conferences is also changing the way the media covers official press events in a country where political news usually headlines.
Enríquez says that the combination of latenight press events and lengthy discourses without much content has led La Prensa to report on events two days after the fact or skip them altogether.
However, he says, it is not affecting the importance of political coverage. “When governments are more open about what’s going on, politics becomes less important,” he said. “But the more they try to hide political information, the more we try to get it.”