Tense relations between the press and the president are as common as rice and beans in Latin America. It’s a measure — with flaws — of a functioning democracy.
It’s just as common for a president to rail against the press when the headlines aren’t rosy enough for his or her taste. This administration’s battle began last Sunday when President Luis Guillermo Solís wrote on op-ed lambasting Costa Rican national media for what he perceived as unethical and irresponsible reporting on his government and its policies. Solís continued his charge on Tuesday during his weekly press conference.
“Information becomes a weapon — and I’m using that term deliberately — a weapon that can do great damage to a democracy like this one that defends freedom of expression,” Solís told reporters gathered at Casa Presidencial.
“This is not about deflecting responsibilities from the government,” Solís said, “It’s about debating the role of the media in a democracy that does not tell the full truth, perverts it, or even reports something false.”
The comments came on top of Solís’ bitter op-ed printed Sunday in the daily La Nación. In it, the president complained about daily harassment from the press “in which the use of alarmist or openly false headlines, of highlighted bad news and very well concealed good news has become the rule.”
He also wrote: “If an alien came to San José and read some media outlets these days, it would think Costa Rica is on the edge of an economic and social catastrophe.”
La Nación defended its coverage in a long and detailed editorial on Tuesday. It diligently noted all the days it had published stories about much of what Solís considers the good news of his administration, like the pending construction of the new Moín terminal (groundbreaking is scheduled for this weekend), the recently-approved Alajuela-San Ramón highway project and the Route 32 expansion.
In the case of La Nación’s Route 32 coverage, the paper noted that it would have been impossible to ignore the doubts expressed by Solís’ own party starting when the deal was first negotiated by the former administration of President Laura Chinchilla (2000-2014). The paper noted that Solís’ own Public Works and Transport Minister, Carlos Segnini, repeated those doubts before the Legislative Assembly.
“The sudden change of heart is, at the least, noteworthy,” the editorial stated.
Observers told The Tico Times that the president’s attempt to call out his critics might well end up further complicating his relationship with the media.
Political analyst Constantino Urcuyo said the president’s jeremiad might have been cathartic but it had no apparent political value besides starting a fight with the media. Urcuyo said that presidents forget how much they need the media to push their agenda and how fickle the press can be with its praise.
“I would tell Solís to pray the media does what he wants 5 percent of the time; I’d be happy with that,” Urcuyo said.
Marlon Mora, president of the Costa Rican Journalists’ Association, was similarly unsympathetic to Solís’ tongue-lashing.
“[President Solís] needs to talk about public policy as president, not start fights with the media,” Mora said.
He said taking a confrontational stance with the press did little to push Solís’ agenda or to get out the message that he alleges the media has been ignoring.
Mora noted that blaming the press was a time-tested strategy for politicians when they find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. Solís, who was elected with more than 77 percent of registered voters — the highest margin of any president in the country’s history — has seen his popularity plunge since taking office.
“If [authorities] are looking for a press who are an echo chamber, they’re not going to get it,” said Alejandro Delgado, president of the Free Expression and Press Institute (IPLEX).
“If there were false news stories or lies, the judicial system has avenues to explore them, but at this time there has not been one case or accusation that contradicts what the press has reported,” Delgado said, referring to the right to reply, a protection allowed to all Costa Ricans who believe they have been misrepresented or slandered.
The IPLEX president said that elected officials need to remember that their office requires them to defend their policies to the public — including the media — and that good press follows bad.
Gina Sibaja, a political scientist at the University of Costa Rica who studies media and politics, said that President Solís’ critiques of the media were less a failing of ethics than of form. Sibaja noted that media companies have a social responsibility but they are also businesses.
The drive for some media organizations to seek out spectacle in their coverage instead of deep reporting is a strategy that lends itself to misrepresentation and distraction from the real story in favor of flashy headlines. This kind of confusion in reporting is compounded, she said, in mediums that use short bursts to tell a story, like television or social media.
Sibaja said that the Solís administration was struggling to find its balance point with the media after the presidential campaign enjoyed sympathetic treatment from the media. Now that Solís is in office, she said, the media views him and his administration more critically as it develops public opinion about his policies and their impacts on Costa Rica.
“It’s just part of politics,” she said.