MANAGUA, Nicaragua – La Prensa political reporter Karla Marenco smiles and watches from the press platform as Nicaraguan presidential candidate Enrique Bolaños and several of his faithful whip dozens of baseballs into the frenzied crowd at a Managua campaign rally in late October. Then one of the balls sails above outstretched arms and between waving red flags and banners, striking the press platform a few inches from Marenco.
“My God – that was a little frightening. It almost hit me,” Marenco said later. “And those baseballs are hard.”
In Nicaragua’s tumultuous past, journalists covering politics had a lot more to fear than free baseballs hitting them in the head. Nicaraguan journalists often were censored, harassed and threatened because of what they reported – some were even murdered. But in a new era of freedom and democracy, Nicaraguan journalists face another kind of challenge – that of increasing their professionalism and credibility in a country where the press has long been partisan and biased.
While many Nicaraguan journalists who covered the Nov. 4 election demonstrated they can offer occasional fair and independent reporting, much of their coverage is still shaped by political forces, including expectations from their bosses, pressures from political parties and the influences of their own ideologies. In Nicaragua, print and broadcast journalists are usually for or against something or someone.
“Journalists in Nicaragua are very passionate about politics, and they let politics enter their work,” said Alfonso Malespín, a journalism professor at Nicaragua’s main communication program at the Universidad Centroamericana. “Here, journalists don’t distance themselves from politics. Many feel as though they are part of the campaigns.”
Much like the raucous style of campaigns in Nicaragua, where scantily clad dancers, booming salsa music, Victoria beer and thousands of sweaty supporters shouting in 100-degree heat often results in heat stroke or fistfights, the spirited style of Nicaraguan journalism also can result in combustion.
Two of the three national daily newspapers, for instance, don’t even try to disguise which candidate they support in the election – in which Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolaños easily defeated the Sandinista Party candidate, Daniel Ortega, who lost his third straight bid for the presidency he once held during the 1980s. Bolaños uses a baseball theme in his rallies to call attention to the fact that he would be the one to deliver a “ponche,” or strike-out to Ortega – the chant “ponche” often accompanying the giveaway of baseballs, hats and T-shirts at his rallies. Ortega likewise delivers free hats and T-shirts as he promises more jobs and better schools if elected.
Leading the opposition to the Liberal government is El Nuevo Diario, which has backed the leftist Sandinistas since the newspaper was founded shortly after the 1979 Sandinista revolution. In the months leading to the election, El Nuevo Diario featured hundreds of stories about corruption involving the government of President Arnoldo Alemán of the Liberal Party. The stories were both lively journalism and an effort to discredit the Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolaños. The week before the election, for instance, El Nuevo Diario prominently featured stories on Page 1 of a lawsuit filed in a New York court involving the president and his former vice president, Bolaños – giving it far more attention than the other news media.
Francisco Chamorro, the managing editor of El Nuevo Diario, said it’s important for El Nuevo Diario to write about the widespread corruption in the Liberal government. But he also admits that his newspaper is biased, especially since the Liberal government cut off all state advertising in El Nuevo Diario – a move that has been criticized by the Inter American Press Association. “It’s very difficult to treat them equally when they’re not treating you equally,” Chamorro said. “They want to destroy us.”
Chamorro says that while El Nuevo Diario is clearly a leftist newspaper, it criticizes the Sandinistas as well. “I’m not saying we’re not political. But we try to be objective in our criticism of both sides.”
Closely aligned with the Liberal government, and its candidate, Bolaños, is La Noticia, a 2-year-old newspaper with sparse readership but which receives almost half of the government advertising money spent on the print media. On its front pages, La Noticia continuously plays up the campaign speeches of Bolaños as well as any criticism of the Sandinistas and its record during its governance in the 1980s, which were plagued by the U.S.-funded Contra War and U.S. economic blockade.
Maria Elena Palacios, news editor at La Noticia, said her newspaper provides a different perspective on the news. The other newspapers, she said, attack the government without sufficient evidence or for things that are obvious to everyone, such as holes in the streets. La Noticia, she said, wants to be more positive. “This isn’t the official daily newspaper of the Liberal Party but it does tend to support the party. In Nicaragua, nobody would accept a newspaper that’s the official newspaper of the government.”
The newspaper that has tried the hardest to walk a middle line is La Prensa. The paper was criticized for much of the 1990s for being too closely aligned with the government, particularly in the first half of the 1990s during the presidency of Violeta Chamorro, a part owner of the newspaper. But La Prensa has instituted many changes in the past few years. The most dramatic was bringing in newspaper consultant David Hume from Washington, D.C. to be the executive editor at the paper. Among the changes – an effort by Hume to try to curtail the politicized coverage of the past.
Although Hume says he has had much success in his 20 months in charge of the newsroom, La Prensa journalists still continue to think along political lines – a fact illustrated by the fact that journalists within the newspaper conducted a poll amongst themselves and found the Sandinistas had the support of 41.6 percent while the Liberals had the support of 33.3 percent.
Hume says circulation at La Prensa since his arrival has gone from 26,000 daily to 42,000, overtaking El Nuevo Diario. “People want credible news about the election and politics,” he said. Hume is particularly proud of the fact that La Prensa has once again become Nicaragua’s most credible newspaper – a June 2001 poll of 1,000 people in Managua by the communication school at the Universidad Centroamericana found that 41.5 percent of those surveyed said La Prensa was the most credible newspaper, compared to 33.1 percent for El Nuevo Diario, reversing the findings of a poll in February 2000.
Raul Quintera, who works during the day at a market selling holistic medicine and vitamins and at night as a parking attendant, says he buys and reads La Prensa every day. He loves reading about sports stories, particularly Major League Baseball in the United States. “La Prensa is the most professional newspaper. It has everything and is organized well. El Nuevo Diario is a bit disorganized – you never know what’s an editorial. And La Noticia is simply a newspaper of the government.” A perceptive reader, Quintera concluded that La Prensa always is going to offend some people because it always has been independent. “Whenever there’s a story about Sandinista corruption, the Liberals cheer. Whenever there’s a story about Liberal corruption, the Sandinistas cheer,” he said.
La Prensa has the added disability of being owned by a family largely involved in politics. Violeta Chamorro, who owns a third of the newspaper, is former president of the country. Because of her political connections, she was removed from the board of directors. But her daughter, Cristiana, who is married to Antonio Lacayo, a former presidential adviser to her mother, remains on the board.
Of course, El Nuevo Diario also has ties to the Chamorro family, with Violeta Chamorro’s brother-in-law, Xavier Chamorro, at the helm of that newspaper – founded after a split in the family over support of the Sandinistas. And La Noticia was started by a group of La Prensa editors after that newspaper became too critical of the Liberal government.
Malespín confirms that La Prensa now has the largest circulation in Nicaragua, estimating La Prensa to have 38,000, El Nuevo Diario with 35,000 and La Noticia with 2,500. No independent firm audits the circulation of all three. Newspapers in this Central American country of 5 million sell relatively few newspapers, mostly a result of a devastated economy; Nicaragua generally ranks second worst behind Haiti in the Western Hemisphere in various socio-economic indicators.
On Nicaraguan television, the main national outlet is Channel 2. Joel Gutiérrez, host of a morning talk show on Channel 2 called “First Hour,” says his station has generally tried to present a balanced approach, unlike the other television stations that have clearly aligned themselves with political parties.
Nearly every observer agrees that the most biased media outlets are the radio stations, which prominently play the campaign songs of their beloved candidates even as part of the newscasts. Emilio Lambrana, a poet and free-lance journalist, said radio is the most subjective of the media because the stations do not try to observe journalistic standards. “The majority of people on radio aren’t journalists – they’re economists, lawyers or others,” said Lambrana.
Gutiérrez added, “In radio, you’re either pro-Liberal or pro-Sandinista. I don’t see any middle ground.”
A POLITICAL PEOPLE
Nicaraguan journalism long has been an integral part of the country’s politics. Even during the revolution, journalists were among the leading opponents to the ruling government. In 1978, for instance, La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro – husband of Violeta Chamorro – was murdered as a result of his opposition to the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. The following year journalist Bill Stewart of ABC-TV was gunned down by Somoza’s National Guard.
With the success of the revolution in July 1979, journalists continued to face repression, including censorship for much of the 1980s while the Sandinistas were at war with the Contras. Journalists began operating with relatively few restrictions after Violeta Chamorro defeated Ortega in 1990. In fact, Nicaragua’s press system was one of the freest in all of Latin America, according to independent observers.
In the 21st century, Nicaraguan journalists are mounting efforts to become more professional. Journalism professor Malespín says Nicaraguan journalism is improving. “Journalists are more independent of the political and economic powers,” he said, adding that journalists also are more conscientious of ethics and social responsibility. “They are the only institution besides the Catholic Church that has the power to confront the political power in the country.”
Nevertheless, he says, the election has meant a momentary regression or recess from the professionalization of the news media. “Here, politics traps a lot of people. They’re normally very calm, but they get very vocal and emotionally involved at election time.”
Malespín says that even the more independent news media, such as La Prensa and Channel 2, became more biased against the Sandinistas as the election neared. La Prensa, for instance, published a four-part investigative series into Sandinista land confiscations just two weeks before the election. And Channel 2 journalists became much more aggressive toward Sandinistas in their questioning.
La Prensa’s Hume says he decided to run the story when it was ready – not to influence the election. “It was strictly an important story that had to be told,” he said. Channel 2’s Gutiérrez said he has been unfairly criticized for asking harsher questions of Sandinista guests. “Daniel Ortega has a more conflicted past than Bolaños – I can’t treat them the same; they’re not the same.”
For many Nicaraguan journalists, the election meant many long hours. Lucia Pineda, a television reporter for “100 percent News,” on a UHF station in Nicaragua, started at 6 a.m. election day and worked through the night, reporting from a dozen places over the course of the day. “I get to rest a little between events, but I’ve been going all day,” she said while waiting on a curb for a candidate to appear.
Manuel Esquivel, a photographer for La Prensa, says he enjoys elections because they’re interesting and nobody really suffers – unlike the occasional earthquake or hurricane that strikes Nicaragua. “In disasters it’s always about covering the misfortune of others. Plus, the conditions are much more dangerous in a disaster. We want to cover the news, we don’t want to make the news.”
Xiomara Chamorro, political editor at La Prensa, says the election has meant a lot of added pressure for her. “Every section in the newspaper is important, but right now all eyes in the country are on our section.”
Joaquín Tórrez, a reporter for El Nuevo Diario, says this was his first election as a reporter. “I like it, but the past two weeks have been incredibly long,” he said. “I’ll need a week of vacation afterward to rest.”
Still, the election wasn’t the preoccupation of everyone at the news outlets. As La Prensa’s Hume walked through the newspaper parking lot on his way to work a few days before the election, a worker came out and asked him to check on the renovations in a bathroom and to help select some new tiling. “That’s the job of an executive editor,” he joked. “Right now the bathroom is far more important than the election.”
Kris Kodrich is an assistant professor of journalism at Colorado State University. His new book, “Tradition and Change in the Nicaraguan Press: Newspapers and Journalists in a New Democratic Era,” is published by University Press of America.