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Human Rights

In Nicaragua, Ortega’s control over the media slips even as a government crackdown intensifies

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John Otis/CPJ Andes Correspondent

Nicaragua’s four-month-old popular uprising has not only weakened President Daniel Ortega’s grip on power: it has eroded his government’s control over the news.

Until recently, analysts told CPJ, most Nicaraguan news organizations supported Ortega or provided relatively benign coverage of his increasingly authoritarian regime. But amid a violent crackdown on demonstrators that has killed at least 300 people, more media outlets are providing hard-hitting reports about government abuses and some have joined in the calls for Ortega to resign.

“The government’s monopoly over information has collapsed,” Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of the independent news website Confidencial, told CPJ. “The independent media is becoming stronger.”

This more militant stance comes amid rising dangers for journalists. One journalist was killed in April and many others told CPJ that they have been beaten, shot at by snipers or had their equipment stolen by pro-Ortega paramilitaries. In July, several reporters were trapped overnight in a Managua church occupied by student protesters that came under attack from government forces.

Providing some of the most hard-hitting coverage of this crisis is 100% Noticias, a privately-owned 24-hour cable and internet news station in Managua, founded in 2004. Reporters and editors in Nicaragua told CPJ that before the current crisis the station rarely criticized Ortega and often provided an open microphone to government officials.

Since protests began in April, however, the station has poured its energy into covering the unrest, including attacks by police and pro-Ortega paramilitaries on unarmed civilians. It is now a strident critic of the government. In response, the state telecommunications regulator Telcor ordered 100% Noticias off the air for six days in April.

“Telcor asked us not to transmit news about the protests, but we said ‘no,'” Lucía Pineda, the station’s news director, told CPJ.

Since then, 100% Noticias has become one of the go-to sources for news on the uprising, which was sparked by proposed social security tax hikes but has morphed into a pro-democracy movement that is demanding that Ortega call early elections. During a visit by CPJ to Managua and other Nicaraguan cities in June, TV sets in restaurants, hotel lobbies and homes were tuned to the station as people sought information on the protests and road blocks that have paralyzed much of the country.

100% Noticias “used to be very reactive and careful in their coverage of the regime,” Tim Rogers, a senior Latin America editor for the online news site Fusión, told CPJ. “But now they have grown fangs.”

Rogers, who has spent years covering Nicaragua, said that pro-government news organizations meanwhile are losing credibility because they largely ignored the unrest and parroted the government line that the protesters are terrorists and coup-plotters.

Also providing a counterpoint to the official story are mobile phone videos of street marches and demonstrations that residents post on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. “Government propaganda efforts have been debunked by social media and Nicaraguans with cell phones,” Rogers said. “They are live-streaming the revolution from the streets. That is the loudest media voice right now.”

Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla who led the Marxist Sandinista government in the 1980s, was re-elected in 2006 and over three consecutive terms has gained control and influence over the news media. Nearly all TV and radio stations are owned by allies or members of the Ortega family, and–until recently– provided relatively soft coverage of his government, CPJ has previously reported.

For much of the past decade, the main sources of independent news have been Confidencial, the Managua newspaper La Prensa, and Radio Corporación, also located in the capital. Now, they are gaining allies.

Among them is Canal 10, which is owned by Remígio Ángel González, a Latin American media tycoon who owns dozens of TV and radio stations in Latin America and is known for avoiding editorial conflict with the region’s governments. For years, the Canal 10’s main news program, “Acción 10,” focused on crime reporting and said little about government affairs. When the protests began, news director Mauricio Madrigal said his supervisors at first told him to ignore them.

“They did this to remain in good standing with the government,” Madrigal told CPJ. “But this was the time when we most needed coverage of what was really going on.”

After a one-day blackout of the street marches, Canal 10 received a flood of criticism, the station’s journalists began to complain, and Madrigal said that he threatened to resign. Finally, he said, they received permission to cover the protests and since then Canal 10 has focused on the crisis.

“I didn’t think this type of coverage was going to last because there had been so much self-censorship from TV stations,” said Ismael López, a veteran reporter for Radio Corporación. “But now Canal 10 is transmitting everything.”

Meanwhile, more than a dozen Nicaraguan journalists have resigned to protest at their news organizations’ coverage of the crisis, said Octavio Enríquez, an editor at La Prensa. Among the most prominent is Dino Andino, a former news anchor at the pro-government Canal 2 who left in April. In a Facebook post following his resignation, Andino condemned the government crackdown on journalists and protesters.

El Nuevo Diario has also undergone an editorial about-face.

Founded in 1980, the Managua daily staunchly supported the Sandinista revolution then turned against Ortega after he returned to power 11 years ago. In 2011, its editorial line shifted once again after the newspaper was acquired by a Nicaraguan banking group.

The new ownership told reporters to soften their coverage of the government and focus on business and “positive” news, according to one El Nuevo Diario journalist who was not authorized to speak for the newspaper and asked to remain anonymous. The journalist added that numerous reporters quit because the newspaper became so bland.

But amid the government’s violent crackdown on protesters, El Nuevo Diario is once again doing hard-hitting watchdog journalism, he said. These days, the front page is splashed with stories about political prisoners, human rights violations, and speculation about how long the Ortega government will last.

In a telephone interview with CPJ, Luis Rivas, a banker who sits on El Nuevo Diario’s editorial board, insisted that the newspaper’s editorial line has remained consistent since the 2012 sale. He said that now most of the news coming out of Nicaragua is negative and that El Nuevo Diario is simply reflecting this.

Whatever the reason for the changes, the El Nuevo Diario journalist says that reporters at the paper are excited about covering the news again. He added, “There’s no going back.”

[Reporting from Managua]

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