New In Nicaragua: A Freer, Calmer Press
By Joel Solomon
Joel Solomon is associate director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
For Nicaragua's bitterly polarized media, the name of the game has always been partisan politics under close government scrutiny. But in the 16 months since Violeta Barrios de Chamorro replaced Daniel Ortega in the presidential palace, journalists in Managua have noted two important changes: the vitriolic language long typical of Managua's dailies has mellowed; and the new government, unlike its predecessor, has not kept tabs on the press.
During the nine-year Contra war against the Sandinistas, the press was itself a battlefield. A kind of "take-no-prisoners journalism" prevailed, in which reporters routinely excoriated their political adversaries. On one side, the daily La Prensa (The Press), owned by the Chamorro family and closed by the Sandinistas between 1986 and 1987, supported the Contras. It faced off against the dailies Barricada (Barricade) and El Nuevo Diario (The New Daily).
The 1990 presidential elections led to a surprise Chamorro victory and a broadening of political parties and institutions. The president is actively pushing political reconciliation. "The aggression we used to see in the media is now decompressed through the political process," says Roger Suárez, a reporter and editor covering politics for La Prensa .
In addition, internal debates within the Sandinista party and government coalition have been echoed in the papers, leading coverage away from the "us-against-them" style.
One of the most symbolic changes has taken place at Barricada , which last January shed its status as official Sandinista party mouthpiece. "Being a party paper constrained the Sandinistas too much," says Sofia Montenegro, who headed the paper's editorial section during the Sandinista government years and now edits its new weekly magazine, Gente (People). It was "a tactical change," according to Luis Montoya, a Costa Rican academic who studies the media in Central America. "The paper had to reconcile itself with [the people of Nicaragua] because it could not survive on the Sandinistas alone."
Now, though still owned by the party and run by the same staff, Barricada has toned down its prose. No longer, for instance, does it refer to the Contras as "Somoza's butchers," "beasts" or "ex-national guardsmen" as it had in past years; it now uses the term "Nicaraguan Resistance," which is used by the Contras themselves.
On the other side of town at La Prensa , tempers have also cooled. During the Ortega years, the paper's line was as unrelentingly anti-Sandinista as Barricada 's was anti-right wing. A recent family split at La Prensa has changed its editorial line, which fluctuates between support for the president and criticism of her government.
At the same time, the new government has taken a more open, hands-off approach to the press. Although physical attacks against journalists during the Sandinista years were far fewer in number than in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, the Sandinistas had issued warnings for minor violations of the Sandinista press law and closed media repeatedly.
Seven weeks before the Sandinistas left power, the press law was abolished. A government broadcast law, issued last December, met with such criticism that it was soon pared down to purely technical measures.
To a foreigner the style and language of Nicaragua's dailies may still seem strident. But Nicaraguan journalists gladly note what change there has been. And to those who document government abuse of the press, "hands-off" is always a welcome policy.
Chris Kent is a San Francisco business reporter.
Nicols Fox lives and writes in Maine.
H. Glenn Rosenkrantz is a business reporter for the San Ramon (California) Valley Times .
Tom Johnson is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.