A government closed to the media: lack of public statements and access to information in Nicaragua

No interviews from public officials or access to press conferences, a duopoly of TV stations and most radio stations, and a law of access to public information that is not fulfilled: this is what fills the days of independent journalists in Nicaragua.

The lack of information is at such a level that the president of the country, Daniel Ortega, has not offered press conferences since taking office in 2007, as documented by different organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“There is a systematic blocking of access to public information to the detriment of the independent press,” said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director of the investigative magazine Confidencial, in conversation with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “This is not only visible in the fact that the president has never given a press conference, but also in that the system is structured for official communication that is summarized in a monologue that is the daily government communication given via telephone by the first lady, as spokesperson of the government.”

The “official monologues” that Chamorro refers to are the closest things to statements from government spokespeople that are available to independent journalists.

Every day at noon, the first lady of Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo, who is the spokesperson for the government and director of the Council of Communication and Citizenship, gives phone statements to a newscast called “The focus of the Sandinista dignity” from the ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN for its acronym in Spanish), according to the report “Between censorship and discrimination: Central America threatened” from the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, Fundación Comunicándonos of El Salvador and Semanario Voces.

During her calls, Murillo recites “the prayer to the saint of the day” and publicizes government activities and projects. According to the report, her statements are “replicated simultaneously by TV and radio stations of the ruling party, the official TV and radio channels and unofficial TV and radio stations.”

There is no space for questions from journalists during these calls. According to the report, before this strategy, Murillo gave declarations to “media of citizen power,” meaning official media. However, now it is limited to daily telephone calls.

These policies from Murillo, quoted in the pro-government media as “compañera Rosario,” are part of a communication strategy rooted in her desire to “decontaminate” information received by Nicaraguans, according to what an anonymous source told CPJ for a 2015 article.

Other problems are the complaints of media concentration by the presidential family or businesspeople aligned with the government such as the Mexican businessman Ángel González, the report added. González is known for having constructed his media empire in Latin America, which, as of February 2015, consists of 82 radio stations in FM and AM plus 26 TV stations in the region, according to Ecuador’s El Universo. González is known to align with the ruling government in countries where he has business.

In the case of Nicaragua, only one of the nine open TV channels is not part of this duopoly according to the report “Central America threatened.”

This situation is similar for radio stations. The presidential family controls between four and six stations, as well as the two radio stations that are historically from the government’s party: Radio Sandino and Radio Ya.  The latter is owned by Rafael Ortega Murillo, son of the presidential family, the report added.

The media outlets that are not part of this circle, because the duopoly has not been able to buy them, are persecuted “with intimidation and defamation campaigns,” the report said.

Additionally, official advertising is used as a tool to pressure the media. This also concerns the first lady since she, as director of the Council of Communication and Citizenship, is responsible for managing the state’s resources, which includes official advertising.

“A few years ago, we reported on the concentration of official advertising,” Chamorro said. “And not only that it is denied to independent media, but that it’s primarily concentrated in the private media owned by the presidential family.”

Another concerning issue is the lack of transparency with public information.

Despite being one of the first pieces of legislation that President Ortega signed into law in 2007, journalists and other organizations agree that the Law of Access to Public Information (LAIP by its initials in Spanish) does not work: the agencies do not release the information and no institution forces them to do so.

“It is a extreme system of control of public information that is complemented by the uselessness of the law of access to public information,” Chamorro explained. “The law is now nine years old, yet to this day no public official has been sanctioned for violating it. There is no response to the journalists who present requests based on the law. Some entities such as the National Assembly or some municipalities respond to the request when it concerns information that is not very important, but the executive is the main offender of the law of access to information.”

For Guillermo Rothschuch Villanueva, director of the National Media Observatory and the Communication Research Center (CINCO by its initials in Spanish), the approval of the law “has not meant anything,” according to what he said to the Knight Center.

According to the report “Central America threatened,” this is because after signing the LAIP into law, the government’s “secrecy in the management of public information…became the norm.” It got to the point when public officials who gave statements to independent media were dismissed from their positions.

The report added that some entities continue setting up hurdles when releasing public information through different excuses such as stating that the person responsible for this is not present, asking how the information will be used, or classifying the information as confidential or classified.

Although the law also stipulates that some information will be available through the websites of public entities, some of them do not have it or have incomplete or out-of-date information, according to the report.

One example that Rothschuch gives is that, ironically, it was much easier to find out who the owners of media outlets were before the approval of the LAIP.

“There is a great lack of transparency. In 2006, one could easily obtain information about telecommunications in Nicaragua, who was the owner, where and with who they operated,” Rothschuch said. “But since 2007 and 2008 this disappeared. Now, even students have a hard time accessing information for their school projects.”

The “loneliness” of media in Nicaragua

Despite this context, independent media outlets, which “you can count with both hands,” according to Chamorro, continue to be committed to their work.

“How do we function? Producing quality journalism, working with independent sources, with a process in which we depend less on official sources, as well as using other forms to verify and investigate. Despite this blockade, award-winning investigations of international quality have been carried out in Nicaragua. In none of these cases are there interventions from public officials,” Chamorro said. “Of course there are leaks, there are officials within government who do not agree with this system of control of information and who manage to provide documents to the press, information that we then have to investigate and verify and that is very important.”

Rothschuh sees precisely this effort from journalists to carry out investigations and to write stories despite the information blockade as a large part of the solution to this situation.

“I also have critiques because media does not change its policy regarding how to inform, it does not reinvent its agenda. Why does it continue being institutional? Why do outlets water down information in December? Because they do not know what to report on since everything is closed. The problem is bigger than the government not giving public declarations,” said Rothschuh. “It is the obligation of the government to give information, but it is also the obligation of the media to be alert, to broaden their agenda.”

Nevertheless, Rothschuh does not deny the responsibility of the government in creating what he calls “conditional freedom of speech” in the country. For him, it is clear that the solution requires a serious commitment from the government to have an information access law that works, clear regulation about official advertising, as well as policies regarding the licensing of radio frequencies that guarantee pluralism.

For Rothschuh, the most serious part of this situation is how alone media outlets are in their struggle for freedom of speech. According to him, for example, the opposition “has never understood the communication issues” of the country which is why they have never presented a bill that would, in some way, help the media.

There are also critiques levied against the trade unions that group journalists or media outlets, which he accuses of not standing their ground when protesting against attacks against their members. Finally, he holds the citizens responsible for not supporting the media in its defense of freedom of speech for all.

“Journalists are the first line of defense of Nicaraguans’ freedom,” Rothschuh said. “So the citizens should pay more attention to the communications and media context, take on the struggle for the defense of freedom of speech, understand that the citizenry also has freedom of speech, this is not just a right of journalists, it is a right of the citizen’s constitution. And that is why they should come out to defend the media when they are the targets of aggression or when they retaliate against them.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.